Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Dale Hill’s most lasting early memory of electric vehicles occurred on a fall evening in 1965 in Longview, Texas in the front seat of his 1962 Volkswagen Beetle. At the time, he was a freshman engineering student at nearby LeTourneau University.
Hill was sitting at a stoplight behind a loaded, electric-drive 18-wheeler, a vehicle that used a diesel engine aided by an electric generator and electric motors for power. The truck was part of a fleet of electric vehicles developed by LeTourneau University founder RG LeTourneau to ship parts between LeTourneau factories in Longview and Vicksburg, Miss.
“When the light changed, that truck took off and I couldn’t keep up with it in my little Volkswagen,” Hill remembers. His impression of electric vehicles and their potential to transform the world of transit was forever changed.
Praying for Breakthroughs
Today, Hill carries the titles of founder and chairman emeritus of Proterra Inc., a leading U.S. developer and manufacturer of zero-emission, battery electric transit vehicles. Unofficially, he also considers himself the chief mentor for the company’s sales, engineering and manufacturing teams.
A devout Christian, Hill credits LeTourneau, the man, with inspiring his life-long determination to never stop looking for answers to personal and professional challenges.
“LeTourneau’s favorite saying was ‘Anything man’s mind can conceive, man can achieve with God’s leadership and determination on the individual’s part,’” he recalled. “I left college thinking there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish if I put my mind to it and sought God’s guidance.”
A battery electric bus is a vehicle powered by an electric motor that obtains energy exclusively from on-board batteries. Trolleybuses, by contrast, draw power from overhead wires and typically use batteries only as an auxiliary or emergency power source.
Finding His Passion
Born in Charleston, West Virginia, Hill grew up in a family of carpenters that recognized and cultivated his natural mechanical aptitude. As a preteen, he spent summers on an uncle’s farm learning how to rebuild engines and maintain farm equipment. He also helped his dad remodel homes, learning the plumbing, electrical, and carpentry trades along the way.
“From an early age,” said Hill, “I never doubted that I wanted to be anything but an engineer.”
Hill’s engineering skill – and a job working 40 to 48 hours per week as a machinist – carried him through college in four years. He graduated LeTourneau in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering specializing in welding engineering.
Hill would go on to co-found Tech Weld, a welding supply company in Houston. But after ten years of success – he had two Mercedes sitting in the driveway – he decided to seek out a more intellectually challenging career.
Following his engineering instincts, Hill founded an aluminum dump trailer manufacturing company called Alumatech. Though initially successful – Hill and his team designed a lighter, more fuel-efficient aluminum dump trailer that captured 7% of the national market its first year in production – Alumatech would later have to declare bankruptcy following an embezzlement scandal by its chief financial officer.
Disappointed but not deterred, Hill moved to Denver, Colo. where he learned of an opportunity to help build the nation’s first fleet of hybrid electric buses. The Denver Regional Transportation District (DRTD) wanted to replace of the fleet of diesel buses that served Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a mile-long pedestrian promenade in the heart of downtown, with a fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG)-fueled hybrid electric buses.
Hill initially teamed up with a small engineering company that had acquired the DRTD bus contract. When the company lost its financial backing, however, Hill purchased the bus contract from them, renamed the company TransTeq, and installed a fresh engineering team to develop the new buses. TransTeq delivered its first round of buses within two years.
“Those buses were some of the first low-floor buses in the United States,” said Hill proudly. “They were made of stainless-steel tube frames in a monocoque design. The body inside and out was all vacuum-formed plastic. And we used a natural-gas-powered Ford Pinto engine connected to a generator to charge the bus batteries.”
Though unorthodox – the buses were five feet longer than conventional buses, featured right-hand steer, and contained four doors on one side plus a driver’s door – Denver’s new fleet of buses ran for 17 years, carried 300 million passengers, and logged seven million miles.
Building a Foundation
After a management shake-up at TransTeq in 2000, Hill spent about nine months working for a European bus manufacturing company called Irisbus (now known as Iveco Bus). At the time, Irisbus was trying to penetrate the emerging U.S. electric-drive bus industry. On the advice of one of its potential customers, the City of Los Angeles, Irisbus hired Hill to help them “Americanize” their offerings to U.S. cities.
Irisbus never sold any buses to Los Angeles, but Hill’s time with the company gave him an essential education in how electric drive buses were built, knowledge that would later provide his technical foundation for starting Proterra.
Hill’s future in battery electric buses was also mobilized by a 1992 effort by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Northrop Grumman to develop the Advanced Technology Transit Bus.
The most significant innovation to come out of this project – the program produced several prototypes of the new lightweight, low-emission bus but never reached production – was the use of aerospace composite materials to form the body of the bus.
“A composite body would be lighter and stronger than aluminum, and completely non-conductive [unable to transmit electricity through the body] making it far safer in the event of a severe accident,” explained Hill.
Finding a Way
Hill capitalized on this technology breakthrough when he was approached in 2004 by the Federal Transit Administration to help them develop the “bus of tomorrow” as part of the new National Fuel Cell Bus Program.
At the time, Hill felt that battery technology would soon overtake fuel cell technology. Nevertheless, he founded a new company called Mobile Electric Solutions (later renamed Proterra) to compete for the futuristic bus grant. When MES won the contract in 2005, Hill promised to build a battery electric bus that used a small fuel cell as a range extender.
“At the time,” Hill recalls, “I told the FTA that we didn’t know how we would do it, but by the time we completed the project, we would figure out a way to make our bus run all day on battery power alone.”
“Never stop asking why, and never stop trying to come up with solutions.”
–Dale Hill, Founder, Proterra
By 2008, Hill’s determination had paid off. At the American Public Transit Association’s triannual show, the FTA’s director of research and development presented a paper about “the bus of 2030, the electric bus.” Hill famously went up to the director after the presentation and asked if he’d like to have that battery electric bus 22 years early. If so, he could see the bus that day on the adjacent trade show floor.
To this day, Hill claims, the Proterra battery electric bus is the only mainstream product spawned by FTA research and development funding that has enjoyed broad commercial success.
Switching to Zero
In 2018, the U.S. battery electric bus market was valued at more than $445 million, and is projected to exceed $1.5 billion by 2024.
“Every major city in U.S. has now announced either that they’re doing pilot projects or that they’re committed to going 100 percent battery electric,” said Hill, who includes New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Miami in his list of examples.
Advances in battery technology, tire design, and drive train technology, he added, now allow extended-range battery electric buses to travel more than 180 miles during a full transit day on a single charge.
Promoting a Clean Future
Today, Hill is based at Proterra’s offices and manufacturing facility in Greenville, South Carolina, but he is rarely there. Instead, he’s become a fixture and regular speaker at transportation and clean technology conferences, where he continues to preach the “gospel” of battery electric buses.
He is thrilled about the growing presence of battery-electric buses in U.S. cities, and their role helping cities create cleaner, healthier living environments for local citizens.
Hill is even more excited, however to see growing numbers of school districts switching from diesel-powered school buses to battery electric versions.
“The tailpipe of a school bus is right at the nose level of a first grader,” he explained. “When those buses pull up at the end of the day and sit idling, they’re producing fumes that may be linked to the growing incidence of asthma among kids.”
Proterra is taking significant steps to eliminate kids’ exposure to this hazardous pollution by producing and promoting the use of zero-emission buses, Hill adds.
“Nothing makes me happier than being able to do that,” he said. “If I can leave this world with my grandkids saying, ‘Pops left a footprint in the sand,’ I will feel that my life was a success.”
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