BYD’s bold European expansion plans turn from dream to reality

In little more than five years, a battery and vehicle manufacturer from China has gone from nowhere to top-seller in the European electric-bus market. It’s now turning its attention to the European truck market. TIM BLAKEMORE, managing editor of Commercial Vehicle Engineer, reports

Battery-powered refuse-collection trucks made by Build Your Dreams (BYD), a huge and fast-growing multinational electric-vehicle manufacturer based in China, could soon be on sale in Europe for the first time.

Speaking last month at the group’s global head office in Shenzhen, its European division’s MD, Isbrand Ho, confirmed that the refuse-collection sector of the European truck market had been identified as a prime target for further European expansion.

Although cars, vans and trucks are included in its extensive product line-up in China, at its European base in the Netherlands (set up five years ago), BYD has concentrated solely on pure-electric (battery-powered) buses.

In a joint venture with Alexander Dennis (ADL), the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) top-selling bus manufacturer, BYD chassis and electric drivelines are bodied by ADL at its factory in Falkirk, Scotland. BYD’s first wholly owned bus assembly plant in Europe (in northern Hungary) began operating in April 2017.

Speaking in September at the IAA commercial vehicle show in Hannover, Germany, Ho confirmed that construction of a second European bus-assembly plant in Beauvais, northern France, is now “well under way and will be commissioned very soon”.

The Beauvais plant’s main job, initially at least, is final assembly of BYD buses for the French market. The Hungarian plant in Komarom is much bigger, with the capacity to manufacture up to 400 vehicles a year. The site includes a battery test and maintenance centre and a paint shop, as well as bus and truck assembly lines.

This almost certainly is where production of European-specification BYD electric trucks will start, although Ho emphasises that much depends on finding a joint-venture truck partner in Europe, not least to provide the after-sales support demanded by truck operators.

He will not be drawn on discussions that BYD is understood to have already had with potential joint-venture partners in the European truck market, but the UK’s Dennis Eagle, based in Warwick and the UK’s top-selling manufacturer of refuse-collection trucks, is thought to be a front-runner.

Typical domestic refuse-collection truck work patterns make BYD trucks more suitable than most for fully electric drivelines. BYD makes no secret of its ambitions to continue growing fast in both the European bus and truck markets.

Weiye Lin is head of the company’s newly established European e-bus research and development division, based at the European head office in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. This division was set up six months ago with a team of ten engineers transferred from China. Now Lin is to “learn from European competitors, to support bids for tenders (from bus operators) and to find more suppliers in Europe”.

BYD’s presence in the UK bus market was strengthened two months ago with the opening of a purpose-built workshop and UK head office at Iver, Buckinghamshire. BYD electric buses first went into service in the UK five years ago.

Now, according to Ho, there are 227 either in operation or on order in the country, mainly in London. The company is seeking to recruit more engineers locally in Europe, mainly from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.

As part of the latest Metroline/Transport for London (TfL) order for 68 battery-powered, double-deck buses, BYD and ADL are preparing to deliver 37 by the second quarter of next year. The other 31 e-buses in this order will come from Optare (which is a bus supplier to the Cape Town MyCiTi integrated rapid transit system – ed).

The 10,9-m-long BYD/ADL Enviro 400EV double-deck bus is the result of cooperation between ADL’s body-manufacturing base in Falkirk and BYD’s research and development centre in Shenzhen. Metroline already runs a fleet of 23 BYD/ADL Enviro 200 single-deck buses.

“Our joint team has made tremendous progress in winning tenders for TfL routes across the capital with our 10,8- and 12-m single-deck buses,” says Ho. “With 6 800 double-deck buses now on London streets, their full electrification is the key to making maximum beneficial impact on air quality for Londoners.”

He adds: “In the face of intensifying competition, we are delighted to win the largest first order for electric double-deck buses in London, and to retain our position at the top of the electric-bus sales league.”

Colin Robertson, ADL chief executive, says: “So far the Enviro 200EV single-deck buses have delivered in excess of 1,5-million miles of zero-emission transport in the UK.”

“This new contract for double-deck buses takes the BYD/ADL collaboration to a whole new level in every sense. With this brand-new vehicle we look forward to continuing our journey of improving air quality, while responding to the operational demands of our customers and the requirements of their passengers.”

There are no fewer than 35 000 BYD electric buses in service worldwide. The 600 sold in Europe to date gives BYD a 20-percent share of this market sector, according to Ho, which is way ahead of any rival manufacturer.

He is especially proud of recent successes in Scandinavia, not least because it is home to two of the strongest of those European bus market rivals: Scania and Volvo Group.

The latest BYD order in Sweden was announced at the IAA. It comes from Nobina, one of the biggest bus operating groups in the Nordic region. The 26-vehicle order comprises 12-m single-deck units (11), 18-m articulated units (ten), and 8,7-m midi-buses (five).

All these are expected to be in service by the middle of 2019, operating under the control of Västtrafik, the agency responsible for public transport in the Västra Götaland region of south-western Sweden.

Martin Atterhall, Nobina group fleet manager, says: “There is rapid growth in the Nordic e-bus market. Where new technology and electric solutions are enablers for a more attractive and sustainable public transport, offering cleaner, quieter and more comfortable traffic, we are determined to be in the forefront, developing and introducing smart and sustainable e-bus solutions to Nordic public transport authorities.”

BYD sales are now growing faster in Scandinavia than in any other part of Europe, according to Ho. “This is remarkable, given both the tough climatic conditions and the strong competitors,” he says.

Some European e-bus markets, such as Germany, are, however, proving harder nuts to crack than Sweden or the UK, Ho admits. “In Germany the e-bus revolution has had a slower start.  We are, however, now seeing growing interest here in moving to the new technology, but it’s not plain sailing yet, although we have been actively tendering for several projects. We’re working hard to win the hearts and minds of all participants,” he says.

He is confident that the extensive latest updates to the BYD bus range unveiled in Hannover will help win more hearts and minds in Germany and elsewhere.

BYD’s core expertise is in battery development and manufacturing. This is how it started in business in 1995, before moving into vehicle manufacturing by acquiring a Chinese manufacturer. Ho is confident that his company continues to be ahead of all rivals in electric-vehicle battery technology.

He says: “As I visited other stands at IAA, I noticed that everyone is becoming a battery expert, but our battery energy density is unrivalled. And now we have an industry-leading battery thermal-management system, which will lessen degradation, extend battery life and increase vehicle range. Our buses now also have a smart monitoring and fault-diagnosis system, allowing operators to remotely control bus systems and diagnose any problems.

“As comfort and convenience are extremely important to our customers, these have been improved, with noise levels lowered through better sealing and one-piece wheel covers. In addition, our new modular manufacturing system cuts manufacturing time, lowers kerb weight (by around four percent), and reduces component numbers. Product quality has also been improved with components sourced in Europe.

“All this is part of a bright future for electric buses right across Europe. BYD is committed to playing a leading role in this. We aim to stay in pole position, even in the face of intensifying competition.”

When are the first electric BYD trucks in Europe likely to go on sale? Ho is not quite ready yet to spill the beans on this, but confirms that “a team is being set up in our European headquarters to launch our new commercial vehicles” and that the trucks will certainly be on display two years from now, at the 2020 IAA Hannover show.

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