GOLD Coast bus manufacturer Bustech is leading a $170 million program to develop electric buses for the Malaysian market in a deal that could see the company become a key player in a multibillion-dollar global industry.
The brief is to develop and test the E-Bus project in Malaysia, with the challenge being to create an electric bus that has a battery life to last an entire driver's shift in a climate that is brutal for its energy-sapping reliance on air-conditioners.
The partnership includes the government-owned Malaysia Automotive Institute (MAI), Swinburne University of Technology and Australia's industry-backed AutoCRC which have been working on bringing the project to fruition over the past year.
Bustech's proposal to build two prototypes next year largely remain under wraps due to commercial sensitivity, but CEO Michael McGee says a successful program will lead to significant export opportunities globally for the group, particularly in Asia.
"It's exciting for the future of the transport industry," says McGee, who is also hopeful the project could lead to electric buses being used in the Australian public transport market.
McGee says Bustech, which is part of the Calabro family's Transit Australia Group, is pushing against the slump in Australia's auto manufacturing sector and is hoping to create a design and engineering hub for the world market at its Burleigh headquarters.
Bustech is already one of Australia's largest bus manufacturers, with major government contracts in NSW and Queensland. Transit Australia Group is the largest privately owned public transport operator in Queensland, with its 600-strong fleet including the Surfside bus line.
At its peak, Bustech has produced as many as 240 buses in a year, with the company said to have capacity to boost that number significantly.
McGee is reluctant to forecast how many new jobs the electric bus project could create, or how much the market could be worth to the company over the long term.
"Bustech has been selected (for this venture) due to its reputation as the leading bus design, engineering and manufacturing business in Australia," says McGee.
He says air-conditioning offers the biggest challenge to an electric bus fleet.
"Hopefully we can improve the technology and work very well in our current climate conditions. There are a lot of researchers working on this. We are still working on the business case but we wouldnt be in it unless we thought it was going to be a commercial success.
"At the moment we are producing two prototypes and then from there we're looking at more commercial opportunities.
McGee says the big advantages of electric buses are fuel and emission savings, as well as a quieter ride for passengers.
The first bus is expected to be operating by mid-2015 and begin trialling in September.
Transport and Main Roads Minister Scott Emerson describes it as the "start of a beautiful relationship with Malaysia" and he is keen to see electric buses eventually designed by Bustech for Australian roads.
"This shows that Queensland companies, and Australian companies, have the innovation and capacity to sell overseas," Emerson says.
"We are always looking to companies for innovation, and I am very interested in talking to Bustech, and for our private operators to be talking to Bustech, about what opportunities there may be in terms of electric buses."
McGee says the E-Bus project has been aided by a free trade agreement between Australia and Malaysia.
A great deal of research into the electric bus technology has come from Swinburne University of Technology which will work closely with Bustech during the development phase.
Malaysian Automotive Institute CEO M Madani Sahari inspected Bustechs manufacturing facility at Burleigh last week and sees the project delivering strong export opportunities for both countries.
"This partnership is a win-win for both Australia and Malaysia because it develops opportunities that have benefits for both countries," he says.
Malaysia is investing heavily in its electric bus program with $170 million allocated to the project, including the construction of charging stations.
"This project will position Malaysia and Australia as regional leaders," Sahari says.
"We dont believe in having everything centric to one country. We can't. In this era of globalisation we need to work with a partner and this is a smart partnership.
The electric bus deal has been brokered by AutoCRC, a body designed to promote opportunities for the struggling Australian automotive industry.
Our long-term vision at AutoCRC is to rebuild manufacturing in Australia and this project is a perfect illustration, with Bustech's manufacturing facility capable of delivering high-quality, innovative products," says AutoCRC research director Dr Gary White.
Picture - CEO of Bustech Michael McGee (left) and Minister for Transport and Main Roads Scott Emerson
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