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Proterra Could Spell Trouble for EV Buses

In today's issue of "This Week in Climate", we look at what the Proterra bankruptcy means for EV buses.
Abigail Bassett
Aug 22, 2023 10 min read
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ProTerra, the biggest EV bus startup in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Delaware last week. Just two years ago, the Biden administration proclaimed that the EV startup would help the US "own the future”, yet ProTerra is the third EV manufacturer to file for bankruptcy in just over a year. Its struggles offer a glimpse into how precarious the EV industry is and how difficult it is to get green transportation off the ground in the current global economic environment.

What is ProTerra?

ProTerra builds EV buses but also offers electric vehicle technology to other manufacturers of medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles and EV charging and fleet management solutions.

ProTerra has sold about 1,300 buses to more than 130 transit agencies in the US and Canada. ProTerra's drivetrains and batteries are found in other bus and transit manufacturer products, including Daimler's Thomas Built Buses and Freightliner Custom Chassis divisions, Van Hool, Bustech, and others.

Yet, ProTerra and its founder are no strangers to business turmoil and bankruptcy. Founder Dale Hill started in the municipal bus industry by purchasing TransTeq, a Denver, Colorado-based bus manufacturing company focused on building CNG hybrid buses in 1998. Hill had previously worked as an engineer welding supply company and a successful aluminum dump trailer manufacturing company that eventually went bankrupt after the company’s CTO embezzled a large sum of cash.

Hill moved from Texas to Colorado after the bankruptcy and discovered that the city of Denver was trying to find a way to replace its aging fleet of diesel buses with cleaner CNG vehicles. He initially paired up with a small engineering company to tackle the project, but when that company lost its financial backing, he bought the contract, which led to the creation of TransTeq.

Hill began experimenting with alternative power sources during his time with TransTeq because he believed that battery-electric vehicles were the future. In 2004, after TransTeq delivered a fleet of buses that reportedly “ran for 17 years, carried 300 million passengers, and logged seven million miles,” the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approached the company to help develop new public buses as a part of the National Fuel Cell Bus Program. Hill founded Mobile Electric Solutions, which eventually became ProTerra, to take advantage of several TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants that the US government established. Hill showed off his first bus prototype at the American Public Transportation Association in 2008 and moved the ProTerra headquarters to Greenville, South Carolina, in 2010.

Like many other EV companies, ProTerra went public through a SPAC (Archlight Clean Transition Corp SPAC ) in January 2021. At the time, the deal valued the company at $1.6 billion and gave the company a $640 million cash infusion.

Why ProTerra Filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Proterra's CEO, Gareth Joyce, said that while the company has industry-leading electric vehicle and battery technologies, it has faced various market and macroeconomic challenges, affecting its ability to "efficiently scale all its opportunities simultaneously." As a result, the company plans to separate each product line through the Chapter 11 reorganization process to maximize its independent potential.

Back in March, ProTerra had already warned that it was facing a backlog of orders due to supply shortages (a common refrain from all OEMs) and worker shortages due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Gareth had said previously that he saw no reprieve from the ongoing shortages and production rates for the remainder of the year prior to the bankruptcy filing.

The company also had a history of defective manufacturing, recalls, and costly repairs, including cracked wheel wells dating back to 2018 and a steering component issue in 2020. The company still maintained the support of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who had served on the company's board before her confirmation. The former Michigan Governor, had previously backed the battery manufacturer A123 Systems, which failed in 2012. ProTerra also stood to benefit from the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act), but the combination of ongoing inflation and the cost of parts that were required to be made in the USA put a crimp in ProTerra’s ability to cut costs, which also contributed to its bankruptcy filing on August 7.

What’s the Outlook for Other Public Transportation EV Startups?

According to the IEA, there were more than 800,000 electric buses on the road in 2022. That represents over 3% of all buses, making it the most electrified road segment, excluding two and three-wheelers.

The global electric bus market is expected to grow from 192,000 units in 2021 to 544,000 units in 2028. Because city buses are the source of large amounts of black carbon emissions in transportation, UNEP is providing technical and policy support to 20 cities in Asia, Latin America, and Africa to help develop and map low-emission transportation routes. The International Clean Transportation Council (ICCT) is also working to provide technical support to identify and eliminate obstacles to adopting clean buses. Both of these factors are expected to continue to bolster the space. Plus, the US recently began handing out $1.7 billion to 46 states and territories to fund the acquisition of more than 1700 buses, half of which will be zero-emissions.

Yet, the public transportation EV space appears to be on shaky ground–mainly because of the post-Covid hangover in supply and workers and other headwinds that have plagued the entire commercial and consumer EV industry, including battery technology and costs, and charging infrastructure.

For example, NFI Group, a Canda-based electric and traditional bus manufacturer, had to refinance their debt in May of this year and expects a loss of up to $52 million by the end of 2023. BYD, the Chinese EV maker (a partner of NFI Group) which makes both consumer vehicles and electric buses, has a limited presence in the US and facesa funding ban in the US It will remain to be seen how the industry shakes out as ripples from the ProTerra bankruptcy filing evolve.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett