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A crash-less course in driving MTA's new natural gas bus

January 28, 2011 |  9:39 am

Nothing stops like an MTA bus.

I know this because I was driving one the other day and nearly sent my instructor flying through the bus’ windshield after he told me to hit the brakes as hard as I could. I get the feeling he underestimated my enthusiasm for driving.

I’ve driven $250,000 luxury sedans around racetracks, one-off prototype vehicles that won’t hit the market for years and ultra-rare carbon-fiber-bodied sports cars. But nothing matches the experience of driving a 16-ton bus around a training course and then slamming on the brakes, turning the instructor standing behind your seat from a patient, brave man to a human-shaped projectile wearing a sweater vest.

This bus was no ordinary, diesel-belching leviathan from the 20th century. Rather, it was powered by a compressed natural gas (CNG) engine. In fact, this month Los Angeles County’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority became the first major transit agency in the country to switch to a bus fleet that runs exclusively on alternative fuels.

That’s 2,221 buses that run on CNG. John Drayton, who’s in charge of buying Metro’s entire fleet, says using natural gas saves L.A. from nearly 300,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions over diesel buses. Per day.

Understandably proud of this achievement, (and grossly overestimating my driving abilities), the good folks at Metro invited me to their training course in downtown L.A. to experience first-hand what it was like to drive a CNG bus.

The bus I drove was called a NABI 8400. It’s 45.5 feet long, seats 46 people and uses a composite body to reduce weight to the point at which they can add nine seats without an additional (and less efficient) third axle.

The CNG engine puts out 280 horsepower, and 900 pound-feet of torque and has amenities (for the driver) such as power steering, four-wheel disc brakes and four external cameras.

Cost for a CNG bus runs higher than a diesel bus, at about $578,142 for the model I drove. The MTA says this increase is worth the health benefits for L.A. residents.

So what’s it like to drive something like this? Easier than I imagined. And harder than I imagined.. . .

Clearly, I had no issues stopping the bus. The power steering was also a godsend on a vehicle that weighs 32,840 pounds (that’s 10 Toyota Camrys). Putting the bus in drive is done with the touch of a button. Acceleration was smooth and predictable and as soon as you take your foot off the brake, the bus rolls forward without using the gas pedal. Operating the bus required no more physical effort than driving a standard car.

But just because it’s easy to turn the steering wheel and slam on the brakes, doesn’t mean it’s easy to navigate. With more than 7 feet of the bus’ mass sitting ahead of the front wheels, making a turn requires the driver to completely relearn when and how to do so.

Thankfully, I had Vince Wilkes standing over my shoulder to provide guidance. Wilkes’ official title is transit operations supervisor, central division. In short, if he tells you to do something, you listen.

Also on board observing my endeavor were Drayton, and a man named Art Leahy. Leahy is a former bus driver for the MTA and has worked for the agency for decades. His title now? CEO
of the MTA. That’s right, my passengers were the guy who runs the whole show, the guy who buys all the buses and the guy who teaches people how to drive said buses.
No pressure.

With Wilkes as my tutor, we slowly meandered through the parking lot, where lanes of cones were placed to simulate a lane of traffic, replete with hard and soft right turns, a short (and wide) slalom section and an open area for moderate acceleration.

Very quickly, I discovered that when you’re making a turn, you need to wait to begin turning the wheel until it felt like you had passed your target by a mile. Then turn fast and sharp. “I want to hear that steering wheel cry,” Wilkes says, referring to the noise the wheel makes when turned completely in one direction.

Another element to consider when turning is what is known as ‘tail swing.’ Tail swing is when the section of the bus from the rear wheels to the rear bumper swings out in an arc wider than the path of the wheels. This doesn’t happen when you make a turn in a car.

More than one road cone met its maker while I learned about ‘tail swing.’

Aside from my steering woes and sending Wilkes flying into the windshield, the rest of my time on the training course was relatively uneventful. No crashes, crushed limbs or damage of any kind, other than to my driving ego and a few scuffed cones.

The MTA says that it takes about seven weeks to go from complete bus novice, to certified driver driving actual bus routes. After a morning driving the bus, I get the feeling I’d need some additional time in bus driving study hall before I was able to handle things on my own. And that’s before we bring into the mix passengers and the myriad of distractions they would provide. A tip of the cap to the patience of the MTA’s driving staff.

Regardless, I’ve driven a bus. Check that one off the vehicular bucket list. Now who do I have to call to get into an LAPD police cruiser? I’ll be careful with the brakes, I promise.
-- David Undercoffler
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