The Problems WTA Electric Buses Don’t Have

“Alarmist” article is unfair to needed new technology

“Alarmist” article is unfair to needed new technology

Note: I do not claim to be an expert on all topics. However, there are two areas in which I am an expert and that are relevant to this article. One is computers, including software, the second is automobiles. I am that guy with an engine lift in his garage who works on cars and rebuilds engines. I’ve spent my lifetime taking things apart and putting them back together. In fact, I’ve worked on so many different vehicles that sometimes I’ll be sitting in line at Cruisin Coffee, see an old vehicle, and have a flashback to when I worked on it. I simply can’t remember them all at this point. 

For this piece, I’m going to start with the bottom line: In spite of a recent article in Cascadia Daily News, Whatcom Transit Authority’s new electric buses work, they cost less to operate, they don’t pollute, and they will only get better. Those of us who have been around technology for a long time, especially transportation technology, see that WTA is trying to improve with electric buses and I recommend we all applaud them for making a commitment to electric bus technology. Electric buses are better in every way than their diesel counterparts. The only argument you can make for diesel is almost immediate refueling, which is not an issue for WTA who has plenty of room for electric chargers. 

In the CDN article, “Glitches Plague WTA’s All-Electric Buses,” the glitches mentioned aren’t serious or unexpected and will be corrected. We know, from the evolution of fossil-fuel-based transportation, especially pre-computer, that many gas and diesel vehicles also had serious problems that were ultimately solved. 

We accept that any system can have problems and troubleshooting and problem solving is part of technology. Even the best and brightest companies continually update existing technologies. So let’s look at the complaints about these buses, keeping in mind that, ultimately, we need air to breathe, food to eat, and water we can drink.

For starters, the subhead, “Software troubles spark debate about the future of electrics at agency,” is alarmist. These were among the first 50 electric buses built by Gillig. Also, software glitches happen and are generally easy to repair. Just about every complex piece of technology in use today has had a glitch repaired. Current internal combustion engine vehicles are basically computers too, and have been for a long time. Even the amazing Toyota Prius line has had software corrections and updates. I can also point to big technological problems that were never fixed. For example, I am very familiar with 1980s Buick Regals and similar vehicles. The Regal came with an amazing 7 engine options. The 6-cylinders were generally paired with a terrible carburetor. GM never solved this problem. Their attitude was that you should have bought the bigger 8-cylinder engine that came with a bigger and better carburetor or sprung for the Grand-National Sport model that had a turbo-charger, fuel injection and came pre-loaded with a tape called “sounds of the Earth crying.” Ultimately GM released hundreds of thousands of these vehicles with terrible carburetors and simply screwed their customers over. Many put in better 3rd party Holley carbs down the road but the point is that using diesel or gas doesn’t mean you’ll have no problems either. The important part is whether the company is reputable and will address their issues like Toyota or will not like GM.   

The author also reports a drive-train problem, but again does not have the insight to ask how serious it was. In all likely-hood there is a better chance that it was not serious than was and fixing problems like this is what companies that service and build vehicles do. So even this issue doesn’t mean much unless we start to see it happen with hundreds or thousands of vehicles. That is simply not the case here. 

Now, several WTA board members are trying to turn this molehill into a mountain. Why? Because they simply don’t get how the technology works. They were not chosen as board members because they know what they’re talking about; they were chosen because they are well-connected. Unfortunately, they are making uninformed decisions.

Contending the buses are “on the fritz” implies they have issues that are hard to identify and may never be solved. This is simply not true. These buses are only about a year old and have developed expected problems that have mostly been corrected. The rest will be corrected soon. Specifically, the glitchy computer-controlled power steering system sounds like a big issue until you understand that these systems have a mechanical backup. Even if the computer totally failed, the power steering would still work well; not as well, but well. Also, whether the bus was electric or not, it would still employ a similar system for steering or braking. Power steering was new in 1876 and by now, it’s kind of standard. Importantly, the system is NOT unique to electric buses. Big diesel buses like the ones board members Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis and Ferndale City Council member Ali Hawkinson seem to want to go back to, would still employ some kind of power steering system. So this claim is also alarmist.

Then they talk about problems with the heaters. Yes, it’s a problem to be solved; but even using the temporary fix of high efficiency diesel heaters saved thousands of gallons of diesel as opposed to running diesel buses, which average about eight MPG. Again, board members Hawkinson and Korthuis are trying to make it sound like these are big problems when they aren’t. Because even with this issue, they were losing about 50 to 60 miles per charge, but still had a 90 to 100 mile range. And this only occurred during the coldest days of the year.

I would also like to caution WTA manager Les Rezard about saying things like, “Ultimately, if they are working, maintenance costs should drop quite a bit as well,” because they are working! They already are better. You are working out a few, small problems, but statements like this make it sound like they’re bricks when they’re more like golden chariots of legend. 

So how about we let WTA work on getting more electric buses with the $39 million out there for this purpose before it disappears. You know, while the air is still mostly breathable, the water is mostly drinkable, and only 5 million people die unnecessarily from avoidable climate change related problems every year

Moving on. The idea that the WTA board is considering purchasing eight new diesel buses is asinine. Even if the electric buses had serious issues, WHICH THEY DON’T, the IPCC 2021 Climate Change Report gives us about eight years to start reversing our output of greenhouse gases, or we’re going to find out what it’s like to live in the world of Judge Dredd or Mad Max. We need to make clean-tech work. There isn’t a better option and we can’t wait. The idea that anyone, including WTA or the schools would buy new diesel buses to use for 20 or more years, when we only have about eight years to turn things around, is appalling. 
Council member Donovan is right on the money: ““I can’t get my brain wrapped around why we’re not buying electric buses right now,” board member and Whatcom County Council member Todd Donovan said at the March 17 board meeting. He alluded to recent WTA windfalls: $39 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds the transit agency has received, along with millions more still to come from Move Ahead Washington, the 16-year transportation package the state Legislature passed last month.

“We’re sitting on more money than we’re probably ever going to have, and we’re making a decision today to have buses that are diesel that’ll be in service until 2035,” Donovan said.”

WTA, please, if your board is going to make large scale decisions about transportation, let’s try to get board members who know what they’re doing. Those who make baseless arguments against evolving technology shouldn’t be making decisions about which technology to use, especially at this critical environmental stage. The actual survival of our species is at stake. We have waited for decades for real progress, and we just can’t wait any longer for people in positions of power to be willing to do some research before deciding to doom us all.

Unfortunately, it appears WTA didn’t get that memo when they chose some of their board members, because just a bit of research shows that these positions presented by Scott Korthuis and Ali Hawkinson are big oil propaganda. Remember, there is a lot of fossil fuel revenue in Whatcom County and positions like this benefit that industry. But it’s not just Republicans, it’s also Democrats who are busy perfecting greenwashing rather than producing results. And I don’t believe the CDN article is balanced reporting, it’s an advertisement for special interests.

But the real danger is that when a source like CDN puts out an article like this, people who are trying to stop environmental progress, like Greg Baker at the school district, will use it to justify why they won’t make commitments to green tech. The Bakers of the world will say, “Look, there are problems with them newfangled electric buses. Better stick with the mules for another year,” in spite of the entire City of New York converting to an electric school bus fleet. Please don’t let them use CDN as part of an excuse to keep doing business as usual at the expense of future generations. Because they will most assuredly use the CDN article as a way to justify their status quo.

There seems to be a sad trend developing over at CDN in that they refuse to send technically competent people to do articles involving technology. It’s especially annoying because CDN has the resources to hire competent writers who understand technology. The Herald is guilty of this too. It’s irresponsible to put out a technology piece with no numbers, research, or facts. It delays progress and it is just too late for that.

I was hoping that Ron Judd and staff would draw on the many excellent resources available in Bellingham to find competent technology writers. After all, we have Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College, Skagit Valley College, and Western Washington University, all producing technicians who could write better technical articles than CDN is putting out. I, of course, am available to help as well. So please, CDN, get a competent writer who understands technology. It’s 2022, it’s kind of a big deal now. Has been for a while.

In the meantime, I ask us all to look toward the future and continue to do the obviously right thing: ask for electric buses and renewable energy.   


About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Jon Humphrey is currently a music educator in Bellingham and very active in the community. He also has decades of professional IT experience including everything from support to development. He [...]

Comments by Readers

David A. Swanson

Apr 15, 2022

technology unzipped - a great, concise summary by Jon Humphrey thinking globally but acting locally. How close in many respects is technological evolution to that of living organisms.  Just as the human family tree is not a straightforward linear progression from ancient ape to modern human, techological evolution is  a complex, tangled interrelated web and like the ancestral ghosts lurking in the human genome, there be ghosts lurking in the equivalent drivers of technology and its adaption - us


Jon Humphrey

Apr 15, 2022

Thanks David for the eloquent comment 😊. Yes, as machines become more and more complex we are starting to see behaviors not unlike living organisms. This could spiral into a fantastic conversation about AI, but I want to also get another sad comment in here about our local elected officials.
I was informed after releasing this article that Satpal Sidhu and Michal Lilliqust, along with Greg Baker at the schools, are pushing for diesel buses regardless of the facts.
Instead of saying a lot more I’m simply going to link to this artlce from “The Guardian” called “The Ideology at the Root of all of our Problems.” They’re referring to neo-liberals like just about every “Democrat” we currently have in office. I wish people like Sidhu, Lilliquist, Ramel, Shewmake, etc. would run as what they are and stop lying to us. We will never see real progress until we replace neo-liberals with actual progressives.


Tom Dohman

Apr 16, 2022

I’ll leave the specific facts of what is happening with the WTA electric-powered buses to others who are more informed.  I recently saw a statement about Electric Vehicles (EVs) versus traditional IC engine powered vehicles that rather astounded me (“a typical IC engine vehicle has ~20,000 moving parts; a typical EV has ~20 moving parts).  It takes little mechanical aptitude to determine which vehicles will be easier & cheaper to maintain over the long haul.  While it’s true that the lithium batteries may have a finite lifetime, the technology continues to get better each year as the price of these improved batteries continues to decline.  For a broader look at why focusing on old technology (IC & diesel engine powered vehicles), check out the attached Guardian article for a glimpse into the near future, which started “yesterday”.

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