Higer sets up strategy to bring electric bus to Brazil

Chinese company wants to turn country into gateway for neighbors in South, Central America

07/04/2022


Marcelo Barella — Foto: Divulgação

Marcelo Barella — Foto: Divulgação

Brazilians going to Qatar to watch the FIFA World Cup in November have a good chance of going to and from the stadiums in one of the 1,800 electric buses that China’s Higer sent to the host country to transport the fans of the 32 national teams. Those who will stay in Brazil, on the other hand, may also have the opportunity to know the vehicle — if government programs to electrify bus fleets move forward. This is expected to materialize quickly in some cities, especially in São Paulo.

The Chinese manufacturer has set up a business plan to hit the streets in Brazil and make the country the gateway to its neighbors in South and Central America, such as Peru and Colombia. The company intends to compete for space with big brands that dominate the Brazilian market, some of which have been operating in the country for more than 60 years.

Founded in 1998, Higer has four plants in China and grossed $5.5 billion last year. It is a young company when compared to competitors, especially the European ones. “We already have 50,000 electric buses in the streets – mostly in China, but also in Europe,” said Marcelo Barella, Higer’s head for Latin America. In Brazil, the Chinese company will operate with TEVx Motors, which will import and distribute the vehicles.

The company has put together a business plan where the operators of the transportation system, whether private or public, will not need to buy the vehicles nor worry about the charging infrastructure. Everything will be leased. The electric bus is 2.5 times more expensive than a diesel-powered one. “A combustion bus costs around R$900,000. The electric one reaches R$2.6 million,” Mr. Barella said.

Higer signed an agreement with Enel in order to compete for the supply of electric buses in São Paulo, which is Brazil’s largest market – and the perfect place to debut in the country, in the Chinese company’s view. The Italian power company holds the power distribution concession in São Paulo’s capital city and 22 other cities in the metropolitan region around it. Enel will compete in biddings for the supply of the vehicles. If it wins, Enel will buy the vehicles from Higer, assemble the charging infrastructure, and lease the whole package to the operators. Higer will run bus maintenance and driver training, which includes having its own personnel inside the operators’ garages.

“The rental system allows the fleet to be changed as quickly as possible. If operators had to buy an electric bus, I’m not sure if they would get the credit for that,” Mr. Barella said. He recalled that São Paulo has 14,000 buses and plans to reach 12,000 electric buses by 2028. Of this total, 2,600 would be running by 2024 and 600 between 2022 and 2023.

The company plans to gain space in São Paulo, as it is one of the most complex urban transportation systems in the world. If it is able to meet the standards of SPTrans, which manages the city’s system, the company will be able to serve any other city in the country, in the executive’s view. Higer invested $10 million to adapt the buses to Brazilian standards. “We have all the tooling ready. If I have an order for a thousand buses, I am able to meet the demand.”

If Higer’s plans go as expected, the company estimates to have 300 employees in 2023 and 500 by 2024. There would be eight to 10 employees in each garage.

At first, the battery-powered vehicles will be imported in one piece, but the company is negotiating with the government of Ceará an area in the port of Suape to install an assembly line, with an estimated investment of $20 million. With the local unit, the idea is to import the buses in a PKD (Partial Knock-Down) system. “The structure of the car comes ready and here we put the windows, seats and engine,” the executive said.

In a second moment, the SKD (Semi Knock-Down) system would be adopted, with higher added value. Mr. Barella explains that a good part of the vehicle maker’s suppliers in China are already in Brazil and could meet Higer’s needs in Ceará. They are global suppliers, such as Siemens and Dana, for engines; ZF for suspension; Bosch for steering gears; or Wabco for brakes. The batteries are from CATL, which has signed an agreement with the Brazilian battery manufacturer Moura for post-sale services. The unit in Ceará will also be the export base for the region.

The choice of Ceará reveals the next step in the automaker’s strategy for Brazil: hydrogen buses. The state has a large supply of clean energy and several projects for green hydrogen production in the medium term. Higer already has 400 hydrogen buses running in China. But it is a longer-term project in Brazil.

Well before the use of hydrogen, the Asian group plans to enter the segment of passenger and cargo electric vans and trucks in Brazil. The vans are expected to arrive later this year and will require a dealer network. On the other hand, Mr. Barella acknowledged that competition for trucks is likely to be fierce. The executive, who has worked for Higer since 2004 in several countries, knows that the heavy truck segment has its leaders, but as seen in the 2018 World Cup, when underdog Korea disqualified world champion Germany, favoritism is only confirmed at the end of the game.

*By Carlos Prieto — São Paulo

Source: Valor International

https://valorinternational.globo.com/