Bombardier will break new ground early this year when it tries to enter the bus market with the launch of two commercial trials of electric-powered vehicles.
The Canadian maker of aircraft and rail equipment, including trains and trams, is using a wireless charging technology it has developed to try to break into the bus market.
If successful, the move could help the group diversify away from its two traditional businesses, where analysts have recently flagged some concerns about performance.
The move is part of a strategy being developed by a new business unit at the company called Primove, which has created some of the most advanced wireless charging technology for large electric vehicles in the market.
The charging system is based on inductive loop technology - also found in modern electric tooth brushes - which manipulates powerful magnetic fields to recharge batteries without any contact.
JErEmie Desjardins, the head of the Primove unit, said the idea dated back to 2007 when he and a team of engineers started looking at how to use the technology to enable them to remove catenaries, which pick up electricity from overhead lines, from its trams.
“When we started on this five years ago we looked at how much power we could generate and how to control the magnetic fields. The magnetic field needs to be covered by the vehicle it is charging so that it is not ‘visible’ to anyone,” he said.
The team, which is based at Bombardier’s rail and tram research and development centre in Mannheim, Germany, found a solution.
However, they had to wait for improvements in battery technology before it could be put to commercial use.
Desjardins said it soon became apparent that a slightly scaled down version of the charging system for trams could be used to recharge electric buses.
The charging grids can be buried under the road at depots and stops. The number of sites depend on the topography of the route, which dictates power consumption, and only activate when a vehicle comes to a stop over the grid.
Bombardier has two contracts for commercial trials with local authorities in Braunschweig in Germany, where it has teamed up with Polish bus maker Solaris, and Bruges in Belgium, where it is working with Van Hool, a local bus supplier.
Mr Desjardins said the technology was meant to replace traditional diesel engines.
“We are claiming that we can be competitive against diesel-powered buses so . . . the whole market is there for us.”
Mr Desjardins said he was also hopeful of signing a contract for the first catenary-free tram system in 2013 and was involved in competitions in “a number of Middle Eastern and Chinese cities.
Bombardier is also looking at whether its technology would work in the highly competitive automotive market, where there are already a number of competing technologies vying for the attention of the big manufacturers. Mr Desjardins said he was doing some work with Volvo and talking to a number of “key” companies in the sector.
Investors have been wary of Bombardier as it invested heavily in the development of its new C-series family of aircraft, which is designed to take on Airbus and Boeing’s highly successful short haul aircraft.
Moody’s, the rating agency, also flagged higher-than-expected cash consumption in the rail equipment business as government customers were holding back advanced payments.