Environment Journal spoke on the phone to Håkan Agnevall, president of Volvo Buses, about changing perceptions of bus travel, the congestion conundrum and why buses could soon pick you up from inside a shopping centre.
In the UK, buses are often perceived as being old and slow. How do you change these perceptions?
We need to go back and think about the role of public transport and how we will move around in the cities of the future.
In many cities, the average speed of traffic is going down. The solution to our congestion problem, in our view, is not to put more cars on the street.
We need to travel together.
Even autonomous cars will not solve the congestion problem alone.
Buses are a very flexible mode of transport and the development we are seeing on the electromobility side makes it a green and silent alternative. With electric buses, you can reconsider how you plan cities because you can bring public transport much closer to people.
Today, nobody wants to have a bus stop outside their home because it’s too noisy. Electric buses are silent, so that’s not a problem, and when buses become completely emission-free you can bring them indoors, and have a bus stop in hospitals, apartments or shopping centres.
How do you wean people off using their cars?
I live in Gothenburg, a mid-sized Swedish city, and Volvo Buses have just moved headquarters. Now I can get there quicker with public transport, so I don’t take my car. This is the key. When public transport is more efficient, the people will use it.
What is top of the agenda of many Mayors is air quality. In London, 9000 people are dying because of issues related to air pollution every year. You need to invest in the new technologies that are coming. Putting less money into buses won’t provide better services, so it becomes a vicious circle.
The consequence is people take more cars and we get even more stuck. So we need to create a positive circle where people go back to buses and public transport. That’s the only way we can create a sustainable future for the bigger cities.
In terms of air pollution but also noise, there is no alternative.
How will the technology around electric buses change in the future?
We need to think about buses as an integrated system of the bus and the charging infrastructure so a holistic approach is very much our proposition.
But you could imagine systems of autonomous or semi-autonomous buses, where pods can detach from the bus and take you to the doorstep. That is one part of the future.
Right now it’s about driver support and helping the driver drive safer. We’ve introduced dynamic steering, so we can use the computer to control the steering because fatigue in the shoulders is a big issue for bus drivers. There is also technology that allows the bus to dock at the bus stop perfectly every time.
In recent years have you seen a shift in attitudes from city officials and local authorities towards greener public transport?
It’s been a gradual shift, which is now accelerating. I have the privilege of travelling the world in this job, and everywhere in the world on the top of the agenda is air quality. It’s not debated. People are dying from toxic fumes. Every Mayor is looking for a solution and the electric bus is a major part of that solution.
What misconceptions do you hear about electric buses?
The standard question is about range anxiety, and how long the battery lasts.
It’s understandable, but it’s the wrong question. If you’re looking at electric buses you need to do a systematic study which looks at the climate, topography and other factors which affect energy consumption. Then you can tailor a system to remove range anxiety. One solution is to have a fast charging system, then you charge at every end stop and you can run a 24/7 operation with very small batteries.
What responsibility do companies like Volvo have when it comes to paying for EV infrastructure?
It’s a relevant question. Who should own the charging infrastructure? There is a lot of logic for the city owning it. The charging infrastructure lifetime will be 30 or 40 years yet bus operator contracts are normally around 10 years.
The charging infrastructure is a public good. Different parts of Europe have different views on what the public should own, but it doesn’t make sense and isn’t natural for the operator to own the charging infrastructure.
We do know that the patronage of buses is going down, but we commisioned a survey in the UK which found close to 60% of people are willing to pay more for sustainable electric buses. That means there might be an opportunity to create a positive spiral for congestion rather than this vicious circle.