Jim Boon is a hybrid kind of guy. He drives a Toyota hybrid to work, a Honda hybrid on weekends and, as a manager for Seattle public transit he recently placed the world's largest order for hybrid electric buses.
Now, with the biggest hybrid-bus fleet in the world, Seattle has become the main testing ground for a technology that claims it can drastically cut air pollution and fuel consumption. In the 1990s, demo fleets of 35 buses or fewer started cropping up in cities such as Tempe, Ariz. Sixteen of these early hybrids still service Genoa, Italy, where drivers switch from diesel to electric power when passing the city's downtown architectural treasures. But no city has gone as far as Seattle, which last year bought 235 GM hybrid buses at $645,000 a pop. When the final one rolls out this December, the region's bus system will be 15 percent hybrid.
But why Seattle, and why now? The Pacific Northwest has long been a hotbed of both Green politics and cutting-edge technology. Fourteen years ago the Seattle area bought 236 Italian-made Breda buses to service a mile-long downtown tunnel. They were supposed to operate as clean electric trolleys underground, but the switching mechanism often failed and "the bus drove through the tunnel as a diesel," says Boon. "It was pretty loud and smoky."
When the Bredas hit retirement age in 2002, Boon went shopping. He chose the GM buses because they use an automatic transmission and diesel boosters that provide power to scale inclines without strain. In hilly Seattle, the prospect of a hybrid that could climb like a diesel but accelerate without belching black fumes helped justify a price $200,000 higher than that of a regular bus. "The days of seeing a diesel pull away and pour out smoke are over," says Boon. "After we drove these hybrid buses across the country, I wiped a handkerchief inside the tailpipe. It came out spotless."
Experts say buses are critical to realizing the hybrid dream of greater efficiency and cleaner air. It would take thousands of hybrid cars to save as many gallons of gas (750,000) as Boon expects his buses to save Seattle each year. GM claims that compared with conventional diesels, its new buses also churn out 90 percent less particulate matter--a known carcinogen. "Buses are a major source of pollution in any city," says Dave Kircher of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. "They operate where people are breathing this exhaust, so this is a major step forward in terms of emissions."
And a major step forward in the marketplace: Philadelphia; Honolulu; Long Beach, Calif., and Albuquerque, N.M., have all bought the GM buses in recent months. GM is now touting itself in ads as the top hybrid-bus innovator, but Siemens is among the global giants dueling GM for new business, and New York plans to deploy 325 BAE Systems hybrids by 2006. "There's room for competition," says James Cannon, editor of Hybrid Vehicles newsletter. Seems Seattle isn't the only city trying to leave grunge behind.