Report Examines BYD’s Failed Electric Bus Rollout in Albuquerque

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Nov 06 2019 |
Albuquerque officials displayed a Build Your Dreams (BYD) bus when the city announced a contract with the company to build a fleet of electric buses in 2016. But the project was plagued with problems and eventually canceled. | City of Albuquerque

Researchers also highlight more positive electric vehicle case studies in other cities.

When the city of Albuquerque contracted with Chinese bus manufacturer Build Your Dreams (BYD) in 2016 to buy a fleet of 18 electric buses, officials were hopeful it was a big step in creating a “first-of-its-kind” all-electric bus corridor along a busy nine-mile stretch in the city.

The dream turned into a nightmare.

The problems were evident from the moment the first BYD buses arrived in the Duke City in 2017. The vehicles didn’t meet their promised battery charge, which meant they couldn’t manage a full day’s service. There were numerous durability and safety issues, including doors opening unexpectedly, malfunctioning brakes, faulty electric wiring, exposed wires, and overheating batteries.

On top of everything else, the charging system for the batteries was defective, and some buses simply could not be charged. Officials canceled the project within months, and the city ended up suing BYD.

We’ve written quite a lot about BYD in this space over the past several months, mostly focusing on the litany of economic and national security concerns raised by allowing a company with direct ties to the Chinese state apparatus to use U.S. taxpayer money to build electric buses for cities and other jurisdictions.

But a new report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Environment America, and Frontier Group looks at BYD from a different lens, examining the real-world quality control issues that came from its disastrous rollout in Albuquerque.   

Now, the overall report is very much pro-electric bus. The report’s authors highlight a slew of environmental and economic benefits provided by EV vehicles, and they don’t weigh in on BYD’s ties to the Chinese state. The focus is on identifying best practices for cities, school districts and others looking to transition to electric bus fleets.

And there are several cases in which other manufacturers built safe and reliable electric buses for cities across the country.

In September 2014, for example, the South Carolina city of Seneca became the first city in the world to launch an all-electric municipal bus fleet — and exceeded expectations. Built by Proterra, the city’s buses have a six-minute charging time, four minutes faster than originally promised. The buses also average a range of 40+ miles, more than the original expectation of 30 miles.

In Twin Rivers, Calif., the local school district in 2016 purchased eight electric buses from Lion and eight more from Trans Tech; in 2018, the district bought nine more vehicles. Officials already have reported a savings of $15,000 a year in energy and maintenance costs, and plans are in the works to add more electric buses when funding becomes available.

Then there’s Chicago, which was the first cold weather city to rollout electric buses. Built by New Flyer, the vehicles (and the lithium-ion batteries that power them) are specifically designed to withstand the Windy City’s frigid winter temperatures. The city is now purchasing 20 more electric buses, this time from Proterra, which also manufactured a fleet that has been successfully rolled out in King County, Washington.

Things clearly went different in Albuquerque, which “experienced perhaps the least successful attempt at an electric bus rollout in the United States.”

The city eventually settled its lawsuit with BYD in May 2019, and never paid BYD for its faulty vehicles. City officials ended up using money from the original project to order diesel-powered buses.

But Albuquerque isn’t giving up on electric buses. In August, the city announced it is relaunching its efforts to transition to an electric fleet.