Over the past 95 years, Blue Bird has perfected its core capabilities of designing, engineering, and manufacturing school buses from the ground up. Now, the company is applying its chassis-building expertise to expand its electric-powered product range to the commercial vehicle space.
In May of 2022, the school bus manufacturer announced a new electric platform for medium-duty, Class 5-6 commercial vehicles at the ACT Expo in Long Beach, California.
“Our flexible Class 5-6 chassis will enable a broad range of fully-electric vehicles, including last-mile delivery step vans, motorhomes, and other specialty vehicles. We will nearly double our total addressable market by serving the commercial vehicle space,” explained Matthew Stevenson, president & CEO of Blue Bird Corporation. “This move will also benefit our workforce. Building school buses can be a seasonal business. By adding a new product line, we will ensure more consistent production and work schedules year-round.”
Moving from buses to other medium-duty commercial vehicles doesn’t come without a fair share of differences.
“The school bus market is a very mature market with Blue Bird and few other manufacturers serving school districts through a dedicated dealer network,” Stevenson noted. “This is very different from the emerging electric commercial vehicle market. There is no clear leader in the electric vehicle (EV) strip chassis market. As an early market entrant, we are well-positioned to lead in the EV segment and eager to partner with potential customers to design and develop a market-leading Class 5-6 strip chassis.”
And, with its expertise in school bus chassis engineering and manufacturing, Blue Bird believes the medium-duty market is a perfect fit.
“Durability, safety, and reliability are three characteristics prized by the commercial vehicle market, which we have developed in our school bus offering over the past 95 years. We also expect select dealers within our market to be strong supporters in the commercial vehicle market, as they build on existing relationships and businesses focused on this sector,” Stevenson said.
A New Electric Truck Option
To bring the new chassis to market, Blue Bird partnered with Lightning eMotors.
“We collaborated with Lightning eMotors on the prototype since they have extensive experience in electric powertrains and zero-emission vehicles based on nearly 250 electric commercial vehicles in operation and over 1.5 million miles driven to date,” Stevenson explained.
The new EV strip chassis will be available on three wheelbases.
“We will offer our Class 5-6 EV chassis with three wheelbase options of 178-, 190-, and 208-inches for vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) between 16,000 and 26,000 pounds,” Stevenson explained.
Ideal vehicle use will depend on the route, use case, and fleet design.
“We are happy to work with customers to ensure our chassis design meets their needs. We also invite fleet managers to provide feedback to Blue Bird or signal if they would like to participate in a customer council,” Stevenson added.
Blue Bird sees last-mile delivery, food delivery (e.g., bakeries), uniforms, office supplies, and recreational vehicles as critical markets for the medium-duty Class 5-6 stripped chassis.
With a modular design, the Blue Bird electric vehicle chassis allows for several battery configurations from 70kWh to 225kWh, supporting a vehicle range of up to 175 miles on a single charge. The battery packs take between one and 12 hours to recharge fully, depending on the charging infrastructure.
“Our modular design allows fleet managers to tailor the vehicle to their specific use-case. This allows them to select the correct vehicle capacity to fit the delivery needs, tools storage, or spare parts for the jobs they are handling. In addition, selecting an appropriate battery size allows the fleet manager to save costs. They are not forced to buy a higher-capacity battery pack that they don’t need,” Stevenson explained. “And, fleet managers can combine a specific wheelbase with a specific battery configuration to perfectly meet their vehicle needs,” Stevenson said.
For example, an urban route may require a smaller vehicle allowing easier navigation through tight urban spaces and a smaller battery pack due to a shorter route and lower average speed and, therefore, reduced energy consumption. While, in a rural setting or an application where the operator is using the vehicle battery to power worksite tools, a larger battery pack might be more beneficial.
Safety Crosses Industry Lines
When you think about school buses, one of the first things that come to mind is keeping our children safe. This focus on safety will continue to Blue Bird’s EV strip chassis.
“Safety is a key part of Blue Birds DNA. As a manufacturer of school buses, we carry the most precious cargo in the world. That’s why we design, engineer, and build our buses, particularly with safety and reliability in mind. We will bring our focus on safety to our new, electric commercial vehicle platform as well,” Stevenson said.
According to Stevenson, Blue Bird offers several safety features on its EV chassis not standard on comparable electric vehicles to enhance driver protection and familiarity.
These features include “hill hold,” which prevents the vehicle from rolling backward when sitting stationary on a hill, and “electric creep,” which allows the truck to slowly start moving from a stop when the driver’s foot is removed from the brake pedal to simulate a gasoline engine in gear.
In addition, the Blue Bird custom chassis provides the best turn radius to date maximizing vehicle maneuverability in tight urban settings.
The Bottom Line
Blue Bird has built school buses for nearly a century.
“Now, we will enter the commercial vehicle market with a groundbreaking vehicle platform that will enable a broad spectrum of fully electric commercial vehicles, from last-mile delivery step vans and motorhomes to other specialty vehicles. This OEM engineered and certified EV chassis is an industry gamechanger for zero-emission mobility. We do witness history in the making!” Stevenson concluded.
Blue Bird plans to launch production of its medium-duty Class 5-6 EV chassis in late 2023 at its manufacturing facility in Fort Valley, Georgia.