More than two dozen electric Proterra buses first unveiled by the city of Philadelphia in 2016 are already out of operation, according to a WHYY investigation.
The entire fleet of Proterra buses was removed from the roads by SEPTA, the city's transit authority, in February 2020 due to both structural and logistical problems—the weight of the powerful battery was cracking the vehicles' chassis, and the battery life was insufficient for the city's bus routes. The city raised the issues with Proterra, which failed to adequately address the city's concerns.
The city paid $24 million for the 25 new Proterra buses, subsidized in part by a $2.6 million federal grant. Philadelphia defended the investment with claims that the electric buses would require less maintenance than standard combustion engine counterparts.
Proterra, which had Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on its board of directors when Philadelphia pulled the buses off the streets last year, has been highlighted by the Biden administration as a business of the future. President Joe Biden visited the company's factory in April and pledged in his initial infrastructure package proposal to include federal money for the electric vehicle market. The company has since been touted by top officials including White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy, who in a public meeting asked Proterra's CEO how the federal government could spur demand for Proterra buses.
The cost of Proterra's electric buses has gained attention in recent weeks. On a recent trip by Biden to La Crosse, Wis., it was revealed that two buses the city ordered from Proterra for $1.5 million in 2018 have still not been delivered. Over the past five days, Proterra’s stock price has fallen over 25 percent.
Philadelphia's Proterra buses were first rolled out for the 2016 DNC convention with a promise that the city was "plugging into an emissions free future."
— psarnemccormick (@psarnemccormick) July 26, 2016
Granholm was on Proterra’s board from 2017 until earlier this year. It was during that time that both SEPTA and Proterra learned that the heavier buses were cracking, according to the WHYY report.
Philadelphia placed the Proterra buses in areas where it thought they could succeed but quickly learned it was mistaken. Two pilot routes selected in South Philadelphia that were relatively short and flat compared with others in the city were too much for the electric buses.
"Even those routes needed buses to pull around 100 miles each day, while the Proterras were averaging just 30 to 50 miles per charge," WHYY reporter Ryan Briggs wrote. "Officials also quickly realized there wasn’t room at the ends of either route for charging stations."
Similar problems have been found in other cities that partnered with Proterra. Duluth, Minn., which, like Philadelphia, waited three years for its Proterra buses to be delivered, ultimately pulled its seven buses from service "because their braking systems were struggling on Duluth’s hills, and a software problem was causing them to roll back when accelerating uphill from a standstill," according to the Duluth Monitor.
Proterra did not respond to a request for comment.