ABC Magazine Stories, Australia, Bus Features, Electric Buses

Crown Coaches strengthens electric focus with BCI partnership

As a medium-sized family business, Crown Coaches is punching above its weight courtesy of a new electric bus partnership that extends its enduring bond with supplier BCI

Ivan Furlanetto is not one for going half-in. He’s self-admittedly someone “from the blue sky department” and is brimming with energy as he shows me around the twin depots that are the home of Victorian operator Crown Coaches. Much like the Nunawading-based company that he is the business development manager (BDM) of, Furlanetto operates with the mantra that tomorrow is going to be a better day.

This philosophy has been boosted by a recent delivery of BCI battery electric buses that is allowing Crown Coaches to realise its environmentally friendly potential.

“Crown Coaches has always had sustainability in its DNA,” Furlanetto told ABC.

“We pride ourselves on being one of the early adopters of sustainable bus technology in Australia.”

The family-based business has become a long-standing member of the south-eastern Melbourne community after first being founded by Victor and Julie Haoust in 1967. Having operated for nearly 60 years, the next generation of directors in Renee and Jerome Haoust have taken over the baton from their parents and work alongside Ivan Furlanetto and general manager Daryl Kirkwood in the leadership team.

While the Australian bus and coach industry has progressively turned its focus towards zero-emissions networks in recent years, Crown Coaches was ahead of the game when it introduced one of Victoria’s first 100 per cent electric buses in 2009. Courtesy of BCI, Crown’s electric foray of three vehicles was soon joined by an order for five hybrid models around the same time.

“Crown Coaches was a very early adopter back then and therefore experienced a lot more teething problems with the technology,” Furlanetto says.

“While it may not have been an immediate success for us, we learnt a lot about the unknowns of using the technology and shared this knowledge with the industry.”

The initial BCI first generation electric buses may not have been an immediate hit, but they lay the foundation for Crown Coaches’ current zero-emissions focus. The operator kept its hybrid models in service until the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia, with Crown Coaches using the opportunity to retire its hybrid fleet and instead investigate new avenues to sustainable transport.

It started with Crown’s diesel vehicles when a partnership with Viva Energy allowed the operator to use opt-in carbon neutral diesel. Within three months of learning about the fuel technology, the medium-sized Victorian family bus business changed fuel suppliers.

“Since January 1, 2023, we have used opt-in carbon neutral diesel from Viva Energy to reduce our carbon footprint – to date we have abated 4.9 million kilos of CO2,” Furlanetto says.

The deliveries are second generation BCI battery electric models

Following the successful opt-in carbon neutral diesel move, Crown Coaches was faced with a crucial decision to make when long-time chassis OEM Mercedes-Benz announced it was ceasing manufacturing buses and coaches in Australia. The Crown leadership team banded together and realised they were at a fork in the road – they could either order all new diesel vehicles from another popular chassis OEM in Australia or instead find a partner to begin an immediate transition to an electric bus network.

As is the optimistic way of Furlanetto and Crown Coaches, the family business decided to take a leap of faith and commit to only buying electric buses.

“We went the way of forming a goal to only purchase electric bus and coaches moving forward,” Furlanetto says.

“Whether that comes to fruition or not is reliant on supply chains and infrastructure, but we have done everything we can to date to fulfil this aim.”

When it came to finding an electric bus partner, Crown Coaches didn’t have to look far. For more than 25 years, Crown Coaches has dealt with BCI for its body needs. Furlanetto has been an integral part of the relationship for many years, having been BCI’s CEO for 10 years up until 2016 before joining Crown Coaches.

The partnership has included supplying Crown Coaches with its first electric buses back in 2009. Fast forward to today, where BCI represents approximately 70 per cent of the bodies in Crown’s 163 coach fleet in the large and medium fleet segment. All of this history between the two companies made it a natural fit to work together on Crown’s audacious electric vehicle mission.

“The relationship between Crown Coaches and BCI commenced in the late ‘90s and has always been there in various shapes or forms throughout the years since,” Furlanetto says.

“For years we were buying BCI bodies on Mercedes-Benz chassis, so Mercedes-Benz’s withdrawal from the market became the catalyst to order five BCI electric bus models.

“They’re the ideal body and bus for us. We appreciate how BCI works with its partners and is able to engineer buses and coaches that are well suited to our needs.”

Crown Coaches has introduced temporary chargers to overcome supply chain issues

From BCI’s perspective, it was an exciting day for national sales manager Cameron Millen when Crown Coaches came to them and informed them of their electric vehicle vision.

“They came to us in 2022 saying they wouldn’t buy another diesel bus, so it’s been a wonderful project to work on with them,” Millen told ABC.

“It’s great to see an operator not just buying one bus for a trial, but instead properly introducing the technology and supporting it with the correct infrastructure without any government funding.

“They’ve been one of our longer-standing customers and it’s terrific to be able to continue this partnership in the electric space.”

While Crown Coaches’ electric vision may have sounded like lofty goals to attain at the time, the operator quickly backed up its call with an investment in electric bus infrastructure. At its Nunawading home base, its first tranche of Hitachi charging infrastructure allows for 14 buses to be charged simultaneously. In the second stage, charging capacity will increase to 40 buses simultaneously, with underground conduits, an upgraded transformer and a new distribution board all being key to the infrastructure investment.

“The second generation electric buses that Crown Coaches are now receiving are extremely different to the first generation ones they ordered back in 2009,” Millen says.

“No one else was supplying them in Australia back then and Crown Coaches was the first operator to receive them. The technology was very different – these first generation models had industrial motors and manually balanced battery packs.

“Now, Crown is receiving variations of our second generation model that we first introduced into Australia back in 2019.”

Crown Coaches has also switched to using opt-in carbon neutral diesel from Viva Energy

The first five electric vehicles delivered are Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) compliant 43-seat models, with 281kWh batteries onboard. The next five that will be delivered by BCI before the new school year will be 57-83 charter and school coaches with 422kWh onboard.

This diverse fleet highlights BCI’s evolution as an electric bus supplier in Australia. Millen says the brand has recently introduced a 12m low-floor electric model in Sydney and plans to roll out a 10m version in the coming months.

“We’ve worked with Crown Coaches to ensure that these buses work in their depots and have helped locate charging ports to fit in with their infrastructure,” Millen says.

“Our 12m buses have charging ports on both the front and back – Crown Coaches spent at least six months finalising the design and build of the buses to suit its needs.”

Furlanetto says the quality of BCI’s models has ensured Crown Coaches remains confident that it made the right choice throwing all of its chips down the electric path. With some of the delivered buses now out running specialist runs and private school routes, initial feedback is proving that Crown Coaches is onto a winner and drivers are asking if they can be considered to drive the next lot of vehicle deliveries.

“I’m all about warranties as this is an indicator of how much suppliers believe in their products’ longevity,” Furlanetto says.

“One BCI bus has been on the road for three weeks and it’s receiving great feedback from both our drivers and passengers.

“With a company of our size not being mandated to report our emissions, we strive to use best practice and be leaders in this space. We are investing our resources and profits in what we believe in.”

The operator has installed Hitachi charging infrastructure, with compliance testing and safety barriers to be done prior to switch on

Crown Coaches is only at the start of its transition, with the operator training its workshop staff to maintain and drivers to drive the electric vehicles and establishing the infrastructure required to support the influx of new-age models. Furlanetto says the company’s plan is to continue consistently ordering electric buses to steadily replace its diesel fleet while having the capacity to charge 40 electric buses by 2026.

While doing so, Crown Coaches also announced in April that it is exploring the possibility of selling the business. Furlanetto says the operator is only at the very start of this process, but its three-to-five year plan is to develop an electric bus network that is an enticing prospect for the right business partner.

“This is an enduring family business and we want to grow the company’s operations with the help of a potential suitor,” he says.

“We now have the makings of a true depot in a box where our learning can be replicated at other depots – we’ve done the hard yards so that others can help us enjoy the fruits.”

The nature of BCI and Crown Coaches’ partnership may be changing before the industry’s very eyes, with the pair remaining committed to working together in the future. With the help of BCI, Furlanetto is using his trademark positivity to encourage the industry to learn from Crown Coaches and build an electric powerhouse that can make the world a cleaner and more sustainable place for the next generation.

“I encourage other operators to take up the challenge of having zero-emissions buses in their fleets as this technology is not a trial, you simply need to start and learn through the process as we’ll all have a part to play,” he says.

“It’s all about being at the forefront of technology as early adopters. We’ve done the best we can courtesy of BCI, and tomorrow will be a better day for operators following Crown Coaches on the road to lowering emissions.” 

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