Children around the United States ride school buses built by Thomas Built Buses every weekday. This North Carolina firm is the leading manufacturer of school buses in North America. Thomas Built has been revolutionizing this market niche over the past two decades by gradually switching to greener drive trains. With funding and engineering assistance from parent company Daimler, Thomas plans to release a version of the Saf-T-Liner C2 bus powered by natural gas in the next three years. This innovative twist on the familiar yellow bus could cut carbon emissions by 20% compared to diesel counterparts.
The heart of the Saf-T-Liner C2 is a CNG engine developed by Cummins. A 6.7-liter CNG engine with the ISB6.7 G label will be ready for production by 2015. Cummins has incorporated an exhaust gas recirculation system into the engine that ensures higher operational efficiency. The ISB6.7 G engine is designed to meet emissions requirements set by the Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resources Board. Thomas Built Buses and Cummins could be paving the way for development of cost-effective CNG engines across the commercial vehicle industry.
Daimler and Thomas Built Buses aren’t strangers to developing alt-fuel school buses in the United States. The Mercedes OE302 hybrid bus was produced by Daimler starting in 1969 with a relatively small production run. Thomas Built Buses began production of the Saf-T-Liner HDX powered by natural gas in 1992. The firm has sold 1,300 HDX units over the past 20 years though the market has shifted toward CNG in the past five years. Executives at Daimler and Thomas credit a sharp decrease in natural gas prices along with budget constraints that increase interest in cheaper fuels.
The Saf-T-Liner C2 CNG joins a diverse group of school buses currently sold through participating dealers. The C2e bus introduced in 2007 drastically reduces fuel consumption by using diesel and electric power. Thomas also developed the Minotaur, a propane-powered bus that goes easy on the environment. A version of the C2 powered by propane will be available to bus companies and school districts by 2013. The firm’s dominance over the school bus market was built through quality products but could continue by offering inexpensive alternatives to diesel-guzzling buses.
Thomas Built Buses seems to appreciate the ongoing need for innovation despite perceptions that school buses are bland and uniform. Parents squeezed by years of economic downturn are relying on school buses to transport their children rather than detouring to schools on daily commutes. The American School Bus Council estimates that 480,000 buses are used to transport 25 million children each school day. School districts negotiating with bus companies are certainly interested in finding the best deals possible due to limited funds. These companies are likely to invest in hybrid, CNG and electric buses in the near future to keep down fuel costs. Thomas Built Buses seems poised to increase market share unless competing manufacturers accelerate their R&D efforts in the next few years.