School Bus Telematics and Funding: The Chicken or the Egg?

School Bus Telematics and Funding: The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first for school bus transporters? School bus telematics and the potential cost savings from a host of high-tech tracking and data collection options? Or initial funding, which is at a premium in today’s economy?

Parental concern about their kids’ whereabouts — as well as knowing that they’re safe and sound — is accelerating the wider adoption of school bus telematics, or the integrated use of telecommunications. But the current economy doesn’t make it easy for schools to adopt the technology.

Indeed, anxiety over student safety and security is expected to help grow the market from an 8.8 percent penetration rate in 2007 to as much as 37.5 percent in 2014, as initially reported last summer by School Transportation News.

“School bus fleets that have adopted telematics services have shown a high degree of satisfaction,” says Neelu Singh, a market analyst who conducted the researcher for the firm Frost & Sullivan.

Her report last summer points to other market drivers, including the desire of school districts to maximize fuel efficiency, to select the best bus routes via computer analysis and to feed sensor-generated data directly from buses to back-office computer software programs.

Overall, Singh says the total market for telematics hardware and services is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 23 percent from 2007 to 2014 to become a $209.8 million industry. But a prolonged recession could bring those figures into doubt.

The Benefits
Currently, a basic telematics system for a school bus — which features vehicle location and tracking, scheduling and dispatching, route planning, emergency alerts and geofencing (limiting a school bus to a specific neighborhood) — runs about $3,400 to $3,800 for a 10-bus fleet, Singh says.

Next generation telematics systems, Singh says, will enable school districts to embed monitoring cameras on all buses and to offer school administrators and parents an entirely new level of security.

“Such systems will mitigate several security and safety concerns of parents and school districts and boards,” she adds.

Driver monitoring will also become much more sophisticated, allowing school districts to precisely assess driver behavior and alertness level. Drivers who ride the brakes or accelerate too quickly will be uncovered by such systems, as will those who speed, deviate from a planned route and don’t adhere to recommended stop and start times.
Bill Westerman, a vice president at Everyday Solutions, agrees.

“We offer real-time alert software that provides instant notification via text message, email or pop-up display when a driver is speeding, idling excessively or when he or she presses the emergency button,” he says.

Adds Mike McQuade, chief technology officer at Zonar Systems: “We have prototypes of systems that can monitor aggressive driving in the field, and we’ll be bringing these to the pupil transportation market in the near future.”

In addition, even more sensors will be added to the bus chassis, enabling back-office software programs to automatically fetch data about bus performance and maintenance rather than waiting for that information on paper to be submitted by school bus drivers.

“Several school bus inspections, information logging, report generation and related activities are performed by school bus drivers to ensure that all processes and procedures are complied with. Such labor-intensive back-office functions can be automated with the use of telematics,” Singh says.

Synovia’s telematics software, for example, enables sensors on buses to collect driver time and automatically send that data to time clock, attendance and payroll systems.
“This dramatically streamlines the process for time collection and management,” says Brad Bishop, the company’s chief operating officer.

The school bus industry can also expect the increased use of sensors to offer much more granular, on-the-fly maintenance recommendations. Sensors in bus brake pads, for example, will be able to detect when pad wear reaches a predetermined threshold and will then send an automatic, wireless notification.

“This warning will be displayed to the driver and also will be wirelessly communicated to the fleet maintenance manager,” comments Singh.

Such monitoring will also enable the fleet maintenance manager to plan inventory, stock parts and, essentially, prepare for vehicle servicing even before the bus arrives as the servicing facility.

“In the overall scheme of things, the bus is protected from a sudden breakdown, student safety and security is enhanced, expensive downtime costs are averted, and service providers can carry a leaner inventory (of parts),” she adds.

The Challenges
Despite all of the current and anticipated benefits of telematics, the technology has been something of a tough sell, due to the high up-front and life-cycle costs, relatively low awareness about the technology’s value and the reality that most school districts are cash-strapped.

Singh also says more telematics applications need to be specifically customized for the school bus industry if they are to attain a greater foothold. Plus, insurers and regulators need to be brought on board and be convinced that the technology will make their jobs easier in addition to making school transportation operations even safer.

“Schools should help make the argument for government regulators and GPS system providers need to help schools in this effort,” adds Zonar’s McQuade. “For example, if schools used Web-based telematics and granted the regulators access to the data, the need for site visits or cumbersome paper-reporting could be reduced or eliminated.

“Additionally, many state regulators are enacting anti-idling programs. How can the state monitor compliance with these programs when the telematics data is not Web-based? Sure, reporting can happen. But why revert to old methods when the Internet is here to stay?”

Meanwhile, he adds that there is some reluctance among insurers to get excited about school bus telematics.

“Insurance companies will need to see actuarial data before they offer a break to the customer,” offers McQuade. “They need to see that any product that might qualify someone for a break on their insurance does indeed work.”

Adds Everyday Wireless’ Westerman: “Our experience with insurance companies has been disappointing. Insurance rates are set by actuaries. A typical response is, ‘Once we have at least seven years of experience, we will analyze the data and see if we can find a reason to offer a discount.’”

Yet another nettlesome challenge is the security of all that data being generated by telematics systems — the fact that the location of children, the pictures of children’s faces and the routes that school buses travel every day is being transmitted wirelessly.

“Wireless networks inherently are susceptible to hackers, who can break into the wireless information channel when information is being transferred to the service center,” Singh concludes. “School districts and public safety agencies are extra vigilant in this area and are putting pressure on market participants to develop fool-proof and hacker-proof transfer channels. But that said, vulnerabilities remain.” n

Read the Frost & Sullivan report, “North American School Bus Telematics Market Appears Set for Rapid Growth,” at www.frost.com/prod/servlet/press-release.pag?docid=137390213.

Dysart is a journalist, Internet speaker and business consultant based in New York City. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Reprinted from the March 2009 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

Last modified onFriday, 27 April 2018 00:11