The Bus of the Future Is Electric, Proterra CEO Says: Q&A

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(Bloomberg) -- The city bus sector could go from diesel to almost entirely electric within a decade, according to Ryan Popple, chief executive officer of privately held battery-electric bus manufacturer Proterra Inc. He spoke to Anne Riley Moffat at Collision in New Orleans about his company’s plans to grab market share and potential for going public. Comments have been edited and condensed.

Are you considering an IPO?

It’s probably an eventuality — that, or being acquired by a larger company — simply because at some point, given just the working-capital requirements of being a major manufacturer in any of the transportation markets, you’re going to need access to global capital. I’d say IPO timing at this point is more of a bureaucratic question than it is an operational question; it’s just a ton of work. But it’s possible it happens this year or next year.

Who might buy Proterra if you went that route?

The first time anyone seriously took a run at Proterra was in 2015 or 2016. At this point it’s more a series of open conversations with companies that clearly see the need to augment their technology portfolio. There’s a growing recognition not just in car companies but in any company that’s exposed to diesel that they’re going to need to do something and they’re probably going to have to do it faster than they told their investors and they told their boards of directors.

Do you see the company expanding beyond city buses?

A city bus is a Class 8 truck that’s optimized for people. You could fill the platform with cargo instead of people and you’d have the same result. Everything that’s a high horsepower engine, whether it’s agriculture or construction or delivery, or mining, it’s all going to end up electrifying for economic reasons. City buses I think are kind of the tip of the iceberg for this market but it’s not a story in isolation.

How will electric buses and Proterra grab market share?

Once you pass 25 percent of the market [as an industry], you’re going to get the whole market. We are already seeing enough demand to drive Proterra’s market share to 10 percent of the U.S. transport market. The incumbents clearly are not happy with us taking 1 in 10 new orders. There’s probably room for one of the incumbents to make the transition, but I don’t see either incumbent moving fast enough. They’re still trying to stick batteries in steel buses.

The way I think the market is going, the whole category is going to transition to electric over the next 10 years. And it doesn’t have to get all the way there for the obituary to be written for the diesel bus or for a smart investor to pull their money out of exposure to North American diesel buses. You don’t have to get to 50 percent of the category to kill the category: it’s like coal.

Read More: This Week’s Sustainable Finance Brief

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