An all electric Forest River Lightning eMotors2 bus
An all-electric Forest River Lightning eMotors bus

Demand for the company’s new 14- and 18-seat electric shuttle buses is high, says Forest River bus division president David Wright, citing a list of potential customers that includes transit agencies, universities, car rental outfits and private contractors

Forest River Inc., the Indiana-based manufacturer of commercial vehicles, RVs, boats and buses, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., is poised to more than triple its electric bus sales in Canada, says David Wright, president of the company’s bus division, in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

The catalyst: a blockbuster, US$850-million agreement that Forest River completed in August with electric vehicle and powertrain supplier Lightning eMotors of Colorado.

That deal will see Lightning eMotors deliver up to 7,500 electric powertrains to be fitted into existing Forest River bus configurations for Class 4 and Class 5 Ford E-Series and F-Series vehicles, in 12-plus-2 and 16-plus-2 seating configurations, between 2021 and 2025. 

Wright tells Electric Autonomy that of the company’s 400 to 500 units sold in Canada annually, fewer than a dozen were electric vehicles prior to the announcement. While he declined to offer a precise estimate of how many electric bus sales are now expected, Wright says Forest River has already quoted on 40 units for delivery in Canada, for customers ranging from large and small public transit agencies to universities, rental car locations, and private contractors.

High demand among Canadian dealers

That, Wright hopes, is just the start. He says demand for electric buses among Forest River’s Canadian dealers is high, bolstered by the ongoing incentive support from the federal government and select provinces for electrifying commercial fleets. Bus products from Forest River and its subsidiaries are currently distributed through 12 dealer groups serving Canada, most of which are located within Canada and form a network that Wright says is well-placed to support its electric vehicle rollout.

David Wright photo
David Wright, President, Forest River Inc. bus division

“[Our] dealers tend to be around the population bases, so that coverage is good as electrification continues to increase,” Wright says. “If we find areas that [need more coverage], we’re glad to expand … the territory of the dealers that we already have.”

Wright notes that part of the Lightning eMotors deal’s success is due to the fact that both it and Forest River are American manufacturers. This means the buses can be purchased by American transit agencies under the Federal Transit Administration’s Grants for Buses and Bus Facilities Program.

Under this funding model, up to 80 per cent of a transit agency’s cost to replace, rehabilitate, purchase or lease buses and related equipment can be covered by federal grants, provided the vehicles meet Buy America’s requirement of at least 70 per cent of their total build cost being from products built through domestic manufacturing.

Buy America enables Canadian market

This federal support creates enough demand to make the project viable, Wright says, which in turn makes the product affordable enough to offer in sufficient volume to sell into other markets, including Canada, where lower levels of demand would otherwise make such an undertaking cost-prohibitive.

“That allows us to commit to more volume, and the more volume we can commit to, it drives the battery costs down,” Wright says. “So, even though the units going into Canada don’t qualify for Buy America, our Canadian dealers can piggyback on the lower overall cost.”

While the shuttle bus market is a natural fit for the urban markets driving electrification, another area that Forest River is investigating for its potential is the electric RV market. “We’re definitely talking about it internally,” Wright says, acknowledging it may yet be a little farther off than buses.

“I think you’re going to see wide acceptance of electric RVs, especially when you think about the environment and being outdoors,” he explains. “Obviously, in the RV market, there’s much more traveling involved and longer distances. As range continues to expand, which it certainly will, and the price point continues to come down, I think over the next couple of years you’re going to see more and more electric RVs. And I think Forest River will be at the forefront of that because it’s a priority for us.”