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Shock and Awe: The Little Hybrid Engine That Couldn't 

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014
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In other words, a series-hybrid system utilizing lithium batteries and a 600-volt power output to operate a vehicle weighing several dozen tons is "entirely different" than a series-hybrid system utilizing lithium batteries and a 600-volt power output to operate a vehicle weighing several dozen tons.

New York City transit officials, meanwhile, inform SF Weekly that a former BAE hybrid bus revamped into a diesel vehicle has proven to be 98 percent as fuel efficient as a hybrid in test conditions. Whether San Francisco's costly dalliance in hybrid technology has provided this city with truly greener transit remains a vexing question.

As does our role in subsidizing a testing ground for hybrid systems powering war machines.

On Monday, June 17, Mayor Ed Lee and a coterie of city politicos gaily boarded a sleek New Flyer hybrid for a ceremonial, 2.5-mile jaunt to City Hall. Yet an event meant to inaugurate a new era of San Francisco hybrid transit all too closely resembled the old: The bus immediately conked out. Lee et al. were forced to glumly off-board.

Unlike legions of city commuters stranded by Muni's pricey hybrid acquisitions, however, Lee's party was blessed with a backup bus to instantly whisk them on their merry way.

To an outside observer, the two hybrids would be interchangeable. Yet the wine in these identical bottles wasn't the same vintage. Among Muni personnel and city insiders, it could hardly have escaped notice the vehicle that failed Lee was powered by an Allison hybrid drive — and the coach that came to his rescue was powered by BAE.

Muni personnel tell SF Weekly this Allison bus had a long and well-known history of failing to start — the precise defect that manifested itself that day — tracking back to its March 2013 arrival in San Francisco. It was bizarre that this famously problematic bus was tapped to carry any passengers, let alone the mayor — let alone even leave the bus yard.

Its failure was utterly predictable. And yet, it was selected to serve as the centerpiece for a high-profile media spectacle.

Mission accomplished.

Following the incident — a disgrace for Allison — coach No. 8601 was left to languish in Muni purgatory. Days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months. The defective vehicle went unrepaired, becoming an embarrassing cause célèbre and a lingering black eye for Allison within Muni.

Muni's official explanation for the bus's chronic inability to start was a defective "rear exit door mechanism." But that should hardly necessitate months of conspicuous idleness. In fact, the real problem was purportedly far deeper, and more nefarious, than a mere faulty door.

Allison, SF Weekly is told, was fed incorrect parameters by New Flyer to program into this bus's onboard software.

If so, it's hard to see how any of this reflects poorly on Allison. But, by the time coach No. 8601 was finally placed into service in August, Muni's not-a-deal to obtain 50 more BAE hybrids had long since been set into motion.

By September, the supporting documentation and operation manuals for those buses were shipped to Muni. One month later, along came the buses themselves.

And there was much rejoicing: The city and its transit agency can beam at the gorgeous and expensive coaches New Flyer expediently provided, while BAE continues to perfect its hybrid drives. The future is more equivocal, however, for the riders on those impressively quiet hybrids — who'd never know or think to ask about the inner workings of these buses or how they arrived in San Francisco.

Muni, it turns out, has no magic to speak of.

Just tricks.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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