Vadner Doelen: Electric buses to be assembled in Windsor
Designed in China, powered by Chinese-made batteries
WINDSOR, Ont. -- Windsor’s automotive industry is about to start growing again with the first new assembly operation to locate here in decades.
But it won’t be the Detroit Three or any other well-known automotive company opening the facility, and the plant won’t produce cars or trucks.
Try buses — big, lithiumion powered, electric buses meant for city transit authorities. Designed in China, powered by Chinese-made batteries.
East Wind Group Inc. of Mississauga has chosen Windsor for assembly of the buses, which have been designed by international battery giant BYD Co. of Shenzhen, China.
The company held an open house at its Mississauga offices this week to showoff the “E-Bus,” dubbed the K9, for potential customers.
Among the transit companies booked to inspect the bus in an upcoming open house the week of May 24th are OC Transpo of Ottawa, Metrolinx of the Greater Toronto Area, plus the transit companies of Brampton, the Niagara Region and elsewhere.
Attempts to reach company executives were unsuccessful Friday. But an employee answering the phone confirmed the buses will be assembled in Windsor.
Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis was scheduled to fly to Hong Kong this week, which is only a half-hour drive from BYD’s headquarters in Shenzhen. But he wouldn’t discuss the reason for his trip when asked.
“I will be in Hong Kong with economic development staff. But we don’t comment on economic developments until they are announced,” Francis said Friday.
Depending on how they are built, a bus assembly operation may not require a large manufacturing footprint or require more than a few dozen employees. It would probably start small until sales staff can build up an order book.
But an electric bus company would be a major boost to the Windsor-Essex region’s industrial future as it attempts to remake itself into a green economy focused on renewable energy companies.
The addition of electric vehicle production and lithium-ion technology to the growing mix of solar and wind manufacturers opening plants in the city is certain to lead to spin-off industries and exports to the rest of NAFTA.
Buses are often assembled in facilities known as “CKD plants,” or Complete Knock Down. They have no robots, little tooling, and may not even have a paint shop. They receive shipments of complete vehicle kits which are assembled using local labour to circumvent import duties. Volvo once had such a plant assembling cars in Halifax.
BYD — the company says it stands for “Build Your Dreams,” although industry insiders say it’s actually an acronym for an unpronouncable Chinese name — is famous for several things: being the world’s largest manufacturer of batteries for mobile phones and laptop computers, and having the world’s richest man as a shareholder.
Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. bought 9.9 per cent of its shares for $230 million in 2008, causing a huge stir in automotive circles.
BYD is huge. It had a reported 130,000 employees in 2008, when it assembled more than 500,000 gasoline-powered cars for the domestic Chinese market.
BYD Automobile also now produces gasoline-electric hybrids for China, and has been threatening for several years to produce an all-elecrtric car for world export. It has shown vehicles several times at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show.
BYD has a knack for finding the world’s biggest partners. In addition to Buffet, Daimler AG is a 50-50 partner in BYD’s Chinese electric car business.
BYD’s electric bus, the K9, is a smaller unit than most municipal buses, measuring just 12 metres long by 2.5 metres wide. That’s comparable in size to the short-wheelbase tunnel bus Windsor Transit operates between Windsor and Detroit.
It is said to have a range of 250 km to 300 km (186 miles) and a top speed of 70 km. It takes six hours to fully charge a K9 using conventional 120 or 240-volt chargers. But its batteries can be given a half-charge in only 30 minutes using a proprietary rapid-charging unit designed by BYD, so the bus could easily be topped up for all-day use during driver breaks.
No K9s are in service yet outside China, where a demonstration fleet of 1,000 buses ply the streets in the town of Changsha – which also happens to be where the K9 assembly plant is located.
Given the usual ownership integration between Chinese city governments and their local industries, it’s a safe assumption that Changsha didn’t consider anybody’s else’s buses for their fleet.
In March BYD announced it was sending two K9s to Copenhagen for testing by Denmark’s public transport agency. If the bus passes the test, they will be put into service in 2012, becoming BYD’s first overseas customer.
BYD has also produced 1,000 F3DM plug-in hybrid cars and several hundred e6 pure electric cars, but none of those are in use outside China, either.
The BYD project is not getting any known financial support from the federal or provincial governments, two sources said Friday, But it may be eligible for a property tax break under Windsor’s new Community Investment Program — and that could be a major reason the company has chosen the city.
That, plus an abundance of highly experienced former auto assemblers.
With the skyrocketing price of diesel and gasoline, the timing of BYD’s entry into the North American market might be perfect.
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