Conspiracy Alert! GM Has Rediscovered the Lowly Bus

Last Updated Jun 13, 2011 4:57 PM EDT

GM loves buses. Really, it does.
There's an old conspiracy theory starring General Motors (GM) in which the company headed a vile consortium that scrapped America's electric streetcars and replaced them with buses. You can read all about it here -- or just watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which channeled the tale. Now GM can gain some redemption in the eyes of the conspiracy crowd: its innovative GM Ventures arm has just committed $6 million to an electric bus manufacturer.

Putting the "new" in New GM
I've written about GM Ventures before. If you want to see the future of the company, this is where you have to look. It's run by Jon Lauckner, an influential GM executive who was heavily involved with the development of the Chevy Volt.

What's cool about having a VC resource within a 100-year-old car company is that it can place bets not on vehicles but on the technologies that it believes will transform transportation. As a result, GM Ventures can be very forward-looking and strategic, less concerned with either consumer preferences or the stock market.

Why buses?
GM got out of the bus business in the 1980s, and with this move, it really isn't getting back in. For the conspiracy crowd, however, it's clear that GM buses are preferable to, say, light rail. Mobility on wheels is always going to be better for GM than mobility on tracks -- even if the company could seriously consider adding light-rail production and expertise to its business.

In fact, what's probably most attractive to GM about the bus company it's investing in -- Proterra -- isn't the bus platform, but the charging technology that the firm has developed. This is very GM Ventures: funding something that in total may not take off, but that has a technology that could be exceptional useful down the line.

Here's what Proterra has going for it, specifically, from the GM release:

Proterra's TerraVoltâ„¢ energy storage system consists of 54-72 kWh lithium titanate battery packs that recharge in 10 minutes using the company's roof-mounted Fast Fillâ„¢ recharging system.
So there you have it: fast-charging -- the Holy Grail of the electric vehicle world and something that GM would dearly like to be a leader in.

A perfect test
Bus fleets are an ideal way to test out and refine fast-charging technologies because buses can be re-juiced at central locations. This allows for easy setup and maintenance of pilot programs. For GM, this creates anexperimental framework in which hard-working fast-charging system can be explored under extremely strenuous demands, so that later a highly reliably, cost-effective consumer system can be introduced.

The green PR value is also huge. For example:

With up to a 40-mile range for the under 10-minute fast charge application, the [electric bus] can easily replace 80 percent of diesel buses in typical transit and shuttle use without altering schedules or passenger service...

"With the support of GM's automotive expertise and technology leadership, we can achieve a better, cleaner future for public transportation," said Jeff Granato, president of Proterra. "We are proud to have General Motors on board."

Not streetcars, but...
GM may never fully shake off the streetcar conspiracy theories. But at least with this move, it's showing confidence in a future that isn't wholly reliant on maximizing individual mobility. And if it can pick up some tech that will actually apply on the individual car-ownership front, well...that's so much the better.


Photo: GM Media