Entrepreneurship Podcast post

Electric Buses with Mike Finnern

George Grombacher January 20, 2023

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Electric Buses with Mike Finnern

LifeBlood: We talked about electric buses, the future of public transportation, the major challenges of making EVs commercially successful, and what mass adoption looks like with Mike Finnern, VP of Electric Vehicle Fleet Customer Success with Proterra Inc.

Listen to learn how the future of EV charging stations could look!

You can learn more about Mike at Proterra.com, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher


Mike Finnern

Episode Transcript

Unknown Speaker 0:15
wiper. This is George G. And the time is right. welcome today’s guest strong and powerful Mike Finn and Mike, you’re ready to do this?

Unknown Speaker 0:22
Yeah, George, I am looking forward to it. excited to have you on let’s go. Mike is the VP of electric vehicle fleet customer success in the Evie of product management with Proterra Inc. They’re the leader in design and manufacturing of zero emission electric vehicles, electric transit vehicles. He’s working on the future of public transportation. And Mike and I went to college together. So we go way, way, way back. Tell us a little about your personal life’s more about your work and why you do what you do. All right, well, starting out with personal life. I live in Greenville, South Carolina, which is up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. So really pretty area of South Carolina. And I have to say when we first moved here, we moved with the company I’ve been with with prepare for a long time. And I ended up in Greenville, because Proterra moved to Greenville, so I followed them here. And I have to say when we originally thought about coming here, or originally heard the company was coming here, I wasn’t so sure that was going to be the place for me having grown up in the Midwest and Minnesota, but tell you what we came here, Megan and I my wife, and we’ve really really enjoyed it ever since it’s a it’s a fantastic place to live. So Megan, I have two girls, two daughters. Bella is seven and Eileen is 10. And they are spirited, young ladies, a lot of fun. So we do a lot of hiking camping in the area. There’s such a ton of stuff to see and do and in Greenville geographic differences and go to the coast and go to the mountains and go to the lakes. So we did a lot of that kind of stuff. It’s really enjoyable.

Unknown Speaker 2:05
So that’s personal life.

Unknown Speaker 2:08
Work Life. I’m, as you said a VP of Customer Success for Proterra. And kind of fun story. I’m actually the number one tenured, longest tenured employee at Proterra. Now, founder retired at the end of last year. And that made me the number one longest serving employee here. So I’ve seen it all seen all the ups and downs. But it’s really been pretty neat experience as we’ve really we’ve changed an entire industry. During the time that I’ve been here. We’ve changed the transit industry in the US. So it’s pretty neat. But it’s so has has it always been Evie.

Unknown Speaker 2:49
Proterra Yes, Patera started out with a grant actually one of the success stories of the federal transportation administration, they periodically provide grants to startup companies who are doing something need something that they think might be valuable for transportation. And so we started out life with a very small grant from the FTA to build the bus of the future. That was literally what the grant was for. And we started out doing fuel cell buses, it’s always been zero emissions, I guess is the best way to say we started out doing fuel cell buses. And then we transitioned as kind of technology developed. And it became apparent that battery pure battery electric buses, were going to be one one good way to go. We transition to that. So I’ve been working on EVs for the entire time I’ve worked here 13 years.

Unknown Speaker 3:42
So 13 years working on the future of of buses, the bus of the future.

Unknown Speaker 3:51
Who else was working on? I mean, that sounds like a long time ago, you know, 13 years goes by, you know, it’s all very relative.

Unknown Speaker 3:59
Like how long is Tesla but a company about the same amount of time actually, we oftentimes are compared to Tesla or called the Tesla of the bus industry. Specifically because of that we really started out doing what we’re doing about the same time. As Tesla. As matter of fact, quite a bit of our tech now we do our own batteries which is unique in the US we make our own batteries, and quite a few of the folks that design our batteries and build our batteries actually have some Tesla history. They spent time there they worked on some of the earliest vehicles and batteries at Tesla and they’ve brought that technology over to the heavy duty transit bus business. And beyond. We have another group I work for Proterra powered so it’s unique prepared transit, we have another group called Proterra powered, that sells our batteries to other heavy duty medium duty vehicle OEMs so things like over the road trucks, delivery vehicles, construction equipment, things

Unknown Speaker 5:00
Isn’t that nice? And you are the these buses are in cities all over America got about 135. And depending on the day, maybe more than that by now on 35 customers all over North America, US and Canada got, oh, I don’t know, probably the 1100 buses on the road now.

Unknown Speaker 5:23
We are delivering buses to places as far south as Miami. We’re finishing up a 75 bus order right now to Miami. And we also have buses in Edmonton, Alberta, which you know, it’s coming up on Christmas right now. And I’m pretty sure that’s the North Pole. That is a long ways.

Unknown Speaker 5:45
app. So we’ve got buses all over. And then we’ve got buses in Hawaii. And we’ve got buses, in not quite every state, but awfully darn close now.

Unknown Speaker 5:57
And what was the what were the challenges? And what are still the challenges of doing that? I imagine, it’s probably hard to get the first one, somebody needed to be the early adopter and say, yep, we’re gonna do this. But

Unknown Speaker 6:13
challenges that are unique to a bus versus a car.

Unknown Speaker 6:18
Well, I think that’s probably one of the things that I’m that I’m enjoy most, and I’m most proud of,

Unknown Speaker 6:24
at my time here at Proterra. So I was the project manager for the first three, heavy duty on Route charge

Unknown Speaker 6:34
transit buses in the world, we think, right. And then that was in 2010, we deployed those. And then at that time, it was a matter of the the engineering technology. And that’s what was exciting was the engineering technology. And of course, we have had to have a customer at that time that was willing to take an awfully big leap of faith on that. And over the years, we’ve certainly had a lot of customers that have been, you know, with us step by step, taking that leap of faith.

Unknown Speaker 7:03
And we’re pretty well through that now. So one of the things that’s really neat, we’ve gotten a chance to see over the last 13 years, how an industry changes and what has to happen, the work we have to do to help make sure that we’re fostering continued growth. So I started out as the engineering challenge, it was the boss making a bus that was legitimate and, and getting people to to agree that I was capable of doing what they needed to be providing their riders with the service that they expected. That was the first challenge that took a number of years, we’re actually on our fifth generation bus already, which is quite, quite speedy product development in the transit industry, certainly. But that would transition to other challenges, right? Each year, each step of growth resulted in different challenges, for example, it became evident quite quickly that the charging infrastructure was the next thing. And so, you know, now it’s getting more and more prevalent that you drive around and see a lot of car chargers Tesla, superchargers, they’re, you know, they’re quite obvious now quite evident. And numerous, that hasn’t been the case, that’s all come up in just the last couple years. So if you think back 13 years, 10 years, eight years, there was very little and the technology was was very immature, unreliable. So that was something new, as a startup as this kind of pattern, anything you get to say, well, I guess that’s the next problem we have to solve. So we started getting into the charging infrastructure to help our customers make sure that they would have chargers ready when the muscles showed up. Obviously, if you don’t have one, the other one doesn’t work. So that was the next challenge. And then we got into things that we generally kind of referred to as like the ecosystem. Now there’s actually a lot of things that have to have to be done has to take place questions that have to get answered knowledge that has to get get transferred for a particular customer to be successful to have a successful electric bus deployment. So I was able to create the job I have now the group I have now we call it customer success. That’s not just a BS job. The reason we call it that is because a lot of times we’re dealing with customers who have never done this before. And so it’s our job to kind of help them have a successful deployment when they don’t know what they don’t know. Right. So we have to help answer questions for them. They maybe don’t know that they need to ask. So we think of it as kind of a three legged stool, that ecosystem we have the vehicle which has gotten to be easy, so to speak, you know, that’s maybe a little bit generous, but it’s really not a challenge at this point anymore. Then you have the charging infrastructure, second leg, that’s still a challenge, although it’s much much better than it was getting gotten pretty good at that and a lot of other folks have gotten good at that too. The technology has kind of developed to the point where

Unknown Speaker 10:00
That’s, that’s reasonable to get done, then you have the third leg, which we think of as kind of broadly other things. Like, for example, you need to have data, and you need to be able to turn that data into information. So you need a system to manage that need to train your workforce, that’s been something that I’ve gotten more involved in recently, I’m responsible now for the training group within Pro tear, where we trained both our internal folks and, importantly, our customers to make sure that their operators are comfortable, their maintenance technicians are comfortable, this is new technology to them, right. So

Unknown Speaker 10:34
that’s kind of the third leg of the stool. If you don’t have any one of them, you know, won’t won’t likely be terribly successful. So our job is to make sure that is successful and provide all those various different elements. And you can sort of tie my rambling answer back to the to the original question, you know, what I’m really excited about it most proud of as we’ve been able to build those things over time. Seeing the next challenge and go tackle the next challenge. Yeah, well, congratulations. Super exciting. And interesting, right, like now the bus, you know, that’s, that’s probably the easiest thing that we’re doing is actually we built the electric bus, and it works. The charging infrastructure. I’ve got questions about that. But yeah, the operation and the the maintenance of it, what a huge challenge. That is, you have to have different tools and everything else. And then you have these really, really highly skilled mechanics who need to get now really highly skilled in a whole different thing. So that’s, I mean, that’s no small feat. That’s right.

Unknown Speaker 11:41
Huh, nice. Are they’re using the laptop much more than they they’re using? You know, their handles? Got it. As fascinating

Unknown Speaker 11:51
as you are, should, should we consumers? Just regular regular people out here, Mike, should we expect universal charging stations? Or are we just going to see

Unknown Speaker 12:04
Tesla start charging stations, Proterra charging stations, XYZ charging stations?

Unknown Speaker 12:11
No, yes. It’s kind of a success. Story of heavy duty transit, actually. So we started out, I’ll give you another long rambling answer, hopefully not too long. But we started out, you know, 13 years ago, like when I was deploying those first three buses, there was absolutely nothing from a charging standpoint. So we had to create all of that it was all proprietary, nothing else existed another still, by the way, operating, they’re still working just fine in a number of locations. But it was pretty obvious that that wasn’t going to be a good long term solution, having proprietary charging is not a good long term solution that promotes the expansion of the technology. So we were actually at the forefront of pushing the industry, that heavy duty industry toward standardized charging, so and that’s really worked out quite well you we can plug into any charger. Now, with a high degree of competence, there’s SAE standards, the ones like you see around with a high degree of confidence that our bus will work and the charger will work. And as a matter of fact, it’s not uncommon for us to drive our buses, if it’s close enough to drive from the manufacturing plant, we have to either here in Greenville, or in LA, to drive it to the customer site. And sometimes we’re on the edge of range. And we’ll stop that, for example, in Electrify America charge station in the Walmart parking lot, and, you know, block all the Chargers maybe for an hour, but they weren’t great. So universal charging is what you’re gonna see as a short answer.

Unknown Speaker 13:42
Was that was that an obvious decision? Or was it you know what, let’s just make it. So we’re the only ones that kind of cornered the market sort of a deal. I think it’s,

Unknown Speaker 13:54
it would be short sighted to think that you could do that, given that EVs are going to take over they just are, it’s just a matter of when I would argue it’s going to happen pretty darn quickly. If you ever, ever have a chance to drive an Eevee or experience an Eevee, whether it’s an automobile or something larger, like a bus, they’re just better, better in so many different ways. Now, do they meet every single need that a internal combustion engine can? No they don’t? Not yet. But they meet an awfully high percentage, you know, 80 90% of the duty cycle requirements. So just better. So

Unknown Speaker 14:35
they’re, they’re going to be near ubiquitous very soon. And in order for that to happen, you need to have standardized charging just for it to work. So yeah, I think Tesla did it similar to us. They’re nothing existed when they started. And so that was a lot of what they did to help spur the growth of their company. They didn’t build their own because nothing else existed. And they stuck with that, but you’ve also seen them start to kind of help

Unknown Speaker 15:00
A little bit, you can buy adapters that are that, that make your Tesla easily work with standardized charging and vice versa. So that’s starting to kind of open up a little bit on that. I think that’s interesting. And in terms of, so I believe that you’re able to, to, I’m gonna use the term retrofit, whether it’s correct or not to retrofit a irregular bus into an electric bus. And I’m curious to know that and also, instead of just having all these charging stations be independent, sort of one offs, why don’t we see them at gas stations or gas stations resistant to that? Wouldn’t that make sense?

Unknown Speaker 15:43
retrofits? I’ll answer that one. First. We there are some, you might call them competitors of ours doing that. They have a traditional diesel bus. And they sell both diesel buses, or maybe CNG, compressed natural gas and electric buses. And so their challenge is to convert between the two, right, and it’s sort of make them powertrain agnostic. We think that’s maybe not the best way to develop an electric vehicle. So our bus was designed from the ground up to be an Eevee. And that allows us to make some design decisions that we think are pretty important to the functionality and overall overall ability for that vehicle to work. Well, we’re ideally as an Eevee. So retrofits are, you know, maybe one short term, interim step that could help some folks, but probably not the long term way to do it. That’s our stance anyway.

Unknown Speaker 16:42
And then gas stations, I tell you, we just a new gas station just went up just down the road from us. And I thought that’s brand new, surely, they’re going to have a couple of chargers in the corner. But they don’t, not yet anyways. And I have to say, I’m really surprised.

Unknown Speaker 17:00
If I was building the gas station today, I would definitely definitely want to include that as an option. And there are plenty of gas stations that do have as you’ll see a dollars per gallon. And you know, maybe a dollars per kilowatt hour for the charges, right, that certainly does exist and the the charge rates are getting to the point where they’re pretty darn fast, so you can pull into a gas station. And you might only need to sit there for 1520 minutes before your batteries isn’t nearly full, then you can go off for another couple 100 miles down the road. So I think you’re gonna see a lot more that matter of fact, this last weekend, I do a little bit of racing in my spare time. So we had a race this last week, and I have a Subaru that I raced. So we went from Greenville to Road Atlanta, which is kind of a famous racetrack, obviously in Atlanta. And a friend on the town, the team, one of our teammates, has just got his Ford lightning, you know, says electric at 150. And we towed our 28 foot enclosed raised trailer to the track with his truck and we had to make a stop at an Electrify America station in the Walmart parking lot. We sat there just long enough to eat a sandwich at the store. And that was all we needed to get there and back. So it’s actually a pretty enjoyable trip. He broke it up by 20 minutes. Maybe we were there for 40 minutes or so. And it was it was a pretty neat experience. Nice. It’s awesome. How’d you do on the race?

Unknown Speaker 18:32
We did terrible. Terrible.

Unknown Speaker 18:35
It was the worst performance we’ve had. Yes. You know, this is like cheap. This is cheap rice. And this is not anything. So the engine that we just installed out of the junkyard is kind of a you know, roll the dice when you put a junkyard motor in. Sure enough, it was not good. So

Unknown Speaker 18:54
Oh, well. I love it. That’s awesome. Well, Mike, thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you and how can people engage with you?

Unknown Speaker 19:03
Well, I think the best thing is just on a pro Terra frontera.com

Unknown Speaker 19:08
You can get a hold of me right through there, through our customer service or sorry, Customer Success Page on there. And

Unknown Speaker 19:19
we’re happy to talk more about buses. Excellent. Well, if you enjoy this as much as I did, she’ll make your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas go to pro tara.com p r o t e r r a.com. Check out everything that they’re working on a lot of cool stuff on the site and lots of different vehicles that they are developing to move the future of public transportation forward. Thanks again, Mike. Alright, Thanks, George. And until next time, remember to do your part by doing your best

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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