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A hydrogen car in Tokyo. Photo/Getty Images

Three technologies that could change public transport in NZ

Peter Griffin looks at how hydrogen power, autonomous buses and trackless trams could lead us to a cleaner, quieter future.

Hydrogen power

Vehicle makers including Toyota and Hyundai are investing billions in developing fuel-cell electric vehicles as an alternative to electric vehicles charged by plugging into the electricity grid.

The fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity, which drives an electric motor. So, they are effectively electric vehicles, too. But they function more like conventional gas or diesel vehicles, without the emissions. Although hydrogen-powered systems are expensive, costing at least a third more than battery-powered electric vehicles, they generally have greater range, but rely on a network of hydrogen stations, so infrastructure costs are high. Auckland Transport will trial a hydrogen-powered bus from September, in conjunction with Ports of Auckland, which is building a hydrogen plant. Hydrogen for fuel cells requires energy to produce. There are moves to make New Zealand a green hydrogen exporter to countries such as South Korea, using our renewable energy to power hydrogen plants here and shipping liquid hydrogen overseas.

Tranzit’s Keven Snelgrove is sceptical of hydrogen’s suitability for bus fleets. “I see it as a complicated way of making a bus go. For short haul with fast charging, battery electric is the easy route. It may be an option to replace long-haul diesel buses, but not for city work.”

London will introduce 20 double-decker hydrogen-powered buses this year.

Read more: What NZ can learn from China's electric vehicle revolution

A trackless tram in Yibin, China. Photo/Supplied

Autonomous buses

2020 is set to be a big year for autonomous buses, with trials under way around the world and this year’s Olympic Games expected to see the technology showcased in Japan. Christchurch company Ohmio has been testing a driverless shuttle at Christchurch International Airport.

Autonomous buses use sensors and cameras to keep to the route and avoid collisions with other vehicles and pedestrians. Up to 80 buses will be showcased in the run up to the Olympics, with some of them expected to have “level 4” autonomy – meaning there is no driver on board – a step beyond level 3 autonomy, which has a driver to monitor the autonomous systems and take over for some of the driving.

Snelgrove says you can go to China and travel on autonomous vehicles, but “companies are reluctant to release them because everyone is nervous about what will happen if someone gets hurt. But there will be a million fewer people hurt with autonomous vehicles than with manual-driven ones.”

An autonomous electric shuttle in Chiba, Japan. Photo/Getty Images

Trackless trams

There’s no going back for those cities, including Wellington, that retired their old trams, but technology could see new trackless trams introduced for rapid transport systems in New Zealand. Much cheaper and far less disruptive than light-rail systems, which rely on tracks to be laid, trackless trams are a cross between a bus and a train. Running on rubber wheels and powered by electric batteries, they travel along dedicated corridors, often guided by semi-autonomous systems.

Snelgrove says it’s an option that is simpler, cheaper and less invasive than a tram with tracks. “If you have a big earthquake, your tracks are buggered, too. With trackless trams, you just need a good road.”

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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