FedEx and WRI support startups tackling India’s vehicle emissions crisis

When one of life’s most basic elements—clean air—is severely contaminated by pollutants, public health concerns become byproducts of  environmental crises, especially in countries like India, which suffers some of the worst air pollution in the world. Each year, nearly one in five deaths in India could be attributed to air pollution, with vehicle emissions topping the list of contributing culprits. Public transport can cut back on single-vehicle pollution, but with two million buses in operation across the country, it’s easy to see how outdated technology and inefficient logistics contributes to the widespread national emissions emergency.

As an expert in transportation and logistics, FedEx understands the impact efficient and low-emission transportation systems can make not just on the environment, but on the people it serves. Which is why in 2018,  the company teamed up with World Resources Institute (WRI) India Ross Center for Sustainable Cities to launch the Better Bus Challenge. With a singular focus—partnering with stakeholders to help transform India’s public bus system—the Better Bus Challenge invited manufacturers, technology and service providers, mobility entrepreneurs, NGOs, corporations, and transit agencies around the globe to submit solutions that could easily integrate into existing infrastructure.

“The Better Bus Challenge provided opportunity in several aspects key to business growth and innovation,” said Rogier van den Berg, Acting Global Director, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, “Entrants received bootcamp training to build business capacity, they met decision makers in transport operations, and they worked with city officials to bring their innovations to life for their local communities.”

Cell Propulsion, along with two other sustainable transportation companies—Cityflo and Small Spark Concepts —were selected from more than 70 other applicants. The winners were awarded $50,000 each for their winning ideas, as well as an invitation to collaborate with transit agencies to bring their solutions to life. Since then, the Better Bus Challenge has piloted three projects across India’s densest urban centers to make transportation more sustainable and protect air quality.

Cell Propulsion Lowers Long Term Vehicle Costs by 39%

Using buses already deployed within existing Indian transportation hubs, Cell Propulsion’s solution was to install proprietary powertrain technology – components like the engine, transmission, and axles – that were retrofitted into diesel-run buses to fully convert them to electric power.

“After we had examined older bus technology, we identified three main areas of intervention,” said Nakul Kukar, cofounder of Cell Propulsion, one of the companies tapped to tackle the challenge. “Since then, the focus has been on operational efficiency, a better commuter experience, and supporting the overall transition to electric buses.”

The tests pilots were deployed in 2019, and early data shows that the Cell Propulsion technology makes buses significantly quieter, more environmentally friendly and cheaper than diesel buses. Each bus averages four decibels less noise than a standard diesel bus, which could help to eliminate noise pollution and further efficient traffic protocols in loud and urban environments. For public transit agencies, the cost savings are also significant: Cell Propulsion estimates that retrofitting a diesel-run bus with this electrification technology saves them 39% over the life of the vehicle to continue operations compared to the cost of running a diesel engine. And combined with performance metrics, Cell Propulsion’s retrofit technology has the potential to help public transit agencies electrify their existing fleet at almost half the cost of buying and operating new electric buses.

“From design to production to deployment, it was important for us to minimize waste and maximize efficiency,” Kukar said.

Providing Comfort During Mumbai’s Peak Hours with Cityflo

Congestion and bottlenecking plague many of India’s urban bus systems, and many forgo public transit in favor of personal vehicles—contributing to climbing emissions rates. To address busy routes and low occupancy vehicles, Cityflo—a free, on-demand bus aggregator—added more than 60 buses to existing routes in Mumbai and launched a mobile application that allows customers to reserve seats on air-conditioned buses at competitive prices. Cityflo focused on providing services mainly during peak hours to improve access and comfort on public buses.

“For us, choosing an enjoyable commute and an environmentally-friendly ride are not mutually exclusive elements,” said Rushabh Shah, a Cofounder of Cityflo. “During our initial pilot, we found that people actively use our app and Cityflo buses for their accessibility, comfort, and dependability – and many of the sustainability benefits as well.”

Throughout the pilot period, Cityflo serviced 298,000+ passenger trips, with 60% of riders becoming active, repeat users of the app. As an added benefit, Cityflo expanded access to safe and reliable transit to 10% of users who said they otherwise could not access their school or workplace without these services.

Cityflo's environmental impact is sizeable, too: in the pilot, 5,391 vehicle miles of low occupancy vehicles were avoided per day, and 101.2 metric tons of CO2 were eliminated by choosing Cityflo over previous, less sustainable modes of transportation. Now, Cityflo has its eyes on creating similar results in other regions of India.

“We’ve generated a lot of interest from other cities beyond our target city of Mumbai,” Shah said. “There are many potential projects in the pipeline that are a direct continuation of conversations that were initiated during the Better Bus Challenge.”

Sparking Change: Small Spark Filters Emissions in Mysore & Karnataka

To protect the community from contaminated air while minimizing new emissions, Small Spark Concepts created an air filter technology that helps increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon from buses. The filters, which are made from durable, compressed microfibers, are retrofitted onto existing vehicles to help save approximately 50% of carbon emitted from buses.

“With this technology, passengers can rest assured that their choice of daily commute is a proactive step in combatting air pollution and high emissions rates,” said Mayur Patil, Founder of Small Spark Concepts.

The company tested their air filter on ten buses owned and operated by a public transit agency: five were intra-city buses operated in Mysore, India, and five were inter-city buses operated across the state of Karnataka. The buses operated with the retrofitted air filters continually for more than eight months, saving more than 4000 liters of diesel fuel and 12.47 metric tons of CO2 emissions.

En Route to a Cleaner Future

Far from finished, the initial pilots from the Better Bus Challenge have resulted in more economic and environmentally friendly modes of sustainable transportation which can offer millions of riders safe, healthier, and inexpensive ways to commute and travel.

“We see sustainability as a team sport,” said Mitch Jackson, Chief Sustainability Officer. “Over the last 11 years, we have worked with public transportation experts at WRI India to address process and routing efficiencies. The next step was to bring in entrepreneurs and innovators through the Better Bus Challenge to improve efficiencies to the on-road buses and increase ridership within public transportation in India. Not only is FedEx’s collaboration with World Resources Institute enabling significant improvements in the transportation sector—it’s supporting the health of millions of people in India, as well as in countries like Brazil, China, and Mexico.”