Catching Problems Before They Happen

Diagnosing a health issue can be difficult minus the signs that something is wrong. That’s why it’s so important to pay close attention to the sniffles and sneezes, as well as coughs, aches and pains.

Our brains process this data to determine that we might need to visit the doctor. The same goes with vehicle health. 

Fault codes alert drivers behind the wheel that something is amiss mechanically. But heretofore, a challenge has always been that fault codes could only be obtained manually after either drivers or mechanics already were aware of potential problems.

Not anymore.

The ills experienced by school buses and the ability to quickly alert transportation officials of potential maintenance situations have evolved to the point of transmitting fault codes in real time via telematics. School bus onboard computers are programmed to instantaneously record an event and forward it to the garage, even when the bus is still on the road. This allows fleet managers to stay one step ahead of unexpected and costly breakdowns.

“It’s a great time to be a mechanic in the school bus industry,” said John Whelan, shop foreman at School District #73 in Kamloops, British Columbia, referring to the influx of new technology.

So why don’t all fleets have vehicle telematics? 

Like in life, everyone has different priorities, whether those are by choice or not. Arby Creach, director of transportation at Brevard County Public Schools on the “Space Coast” near Cape Canaveral, Florida, knows full well the diagnostic power of onboard telematics. In 2004, he was director of operations at Orange County Public Schools in Orlando and oversaw the nation’s very first implementation of real-time telematics for school buses, followed closely by a similar program at Dallas ISD. 

“We were basically within weeks of each other with a brand new start-up company, then called Everyday Wireless,” said Creach. “But that was all radio based. Cellular fees were way too expensive at the time, so everything was based on radio telemetry to ground-based receiving stations and transmitting the information back through the Internet.”

A lot has changed since then. Everyday Wireless is now known as Synovia Solutions, the factory telematics provider for Blue Bird Connect. Cellular GPS data is also affordable, reliable and readily available. Synovia and Blue Bird offered the first to factory-installed onboard telematics solution a couple of years ago and have since been joined by the teams of Zonar-Thomas Built Buses and Tyler Technologies-IC Bus.

With the options available to the industry, Creach assumed that when he took the director job at Brevard that he could implement something similar to Orange County. But he soon realized Brevard was hurting financially, the result of NASA discontinuing the Space Shuttle program and a mass exodus of jobs and local tax money. 

The economy is slowly improving with the new port open for cruise liners and cargo container vessels, but Creach is still making his case for GPS and telematics. He said he’s made headway in getting the money folks to understand transportation needs, but more so he’s trying to get the administration to realize parental expectations.

Creach realized that everywhere parents go, they have their GPS-enabled smartphones in tow, and they expect their children’s school buses to be similarly equipped. And they are incredulous that buses don’t have GPS or telematics, and that it’s possible and realistic for them to be allowed to break down while on route.

“They don’t recognize and realize that tracking school buses in real time and doing telemetrics is a whole different ballgame,” said Creach. “I’ve been struggling to get that message to our leaders, that we don’t have a choice because of safety, and cost savings and basically reliability, we absolutely have to move forward. Time is money.”

Creach preaches the benefits onboard diagnostics will have for the bus maintenance program, giving his technicians more control over their workflow by scheduling rather than reacting to repairs, minimizing idling and providing data to trainers on driver behaviors that can lead to maintenance issues.

If Creach is a poster boy for an operation that wants telematics but has yet to implement it—and there are plenty of others out there like him—Chuck Tanzer and Saratoga Springs City Schools in upstate New York epitomize how onboard diagnostics can transform a maintenance program. Last winter, one of the harshest to hit the East Coast in some time, Saratoga Springs began pilot testing Navistar’s real-time OnCommand Connection fleet dashboard on its IC Bus models 

“Last winter was a very demanding winter here, it was extremely cold,” said Tanzer. “We had a record amounts of snow fall, and it just blossomed into a winter to remember…and not in a good way.”

Luckily for Tanzer, the district’s fleet management director, and his technicians OnCommand proved vital in remotely identifying vehicles there were not likely start in sub-zero temperatures. Tanzer said the district had just migrated staff to new smartphones, and the OCC app allowed him to check battery voltage from the comfort of home. Buses that didn’t meet the minimum requirements for battery voltage immediately indicated to him that they likely wouldn’t start for the driver at route startup time.

“We could apply our resources to those (failing) vehicles first on the days that were extremely cold and not be chasing our tail later,” said Tanzer. “If we can isolate those vehicles that are probably not going to start and address them first, then more definitely we can get the other ones up and going in a timelier fashion.”

Onboard diagnostics also allows Tanzer to tap into a vehicle with a malfunctioning indicator lamp in the dash and in real time determine if the driver can continue with the route until returning to the yard for maintenance or if a replacement bus is needed. 

“What essentially we are trying to do is rule out the possibility of on-the-road failure as much as we can humanly do. This really seems to help facilitate that,” he added. 

While Saratoga Springs does receive diagnostics reports on other components such as brakes, Tanzer said his operation is most interested in the engine’s performance. 

A bus is a very safe piece of equipment,” he said. “But when they are sitting on the side of the road in the breakdown lane, they are not particularly safe at that point. We try to circumvent that any way we can, and this has proven to be a very useful tool in preventing that from happening.”

Likewise, Shenendehowa Central School District in New York views diagnostics as a must-have to make maintenance of its IC Bus fleet more efficient and to avoid breakdowns during routes. 

“When we have a call from one of our drivers, and they are having a problem, I can look it up,” said George Geel, the district’s assistant transportation supervisor. “It helps me decide if I want to let them continue a run and meet them at the next school with a bus, if I want to swap buses out on the road or just let them continue. I don’t lose a productive mechanic off the floor for two hours for a minor problem. Also I find out about minor problems before they become a major problem.”

Delaware City Schools north of Columbus, Ohio, uses Blue Bird Connect diagnostic software to decrease downtime for its fleet of 50 buses as well as reduce costs associated with towing and having work done at the dealer. 

“When the technicians use the diagnostic software almost on a daily basis, they receive codes that send them in the right direction to fix the problem,” said Jason Sherman, the district’s director of transportation and facilities. 

For example, telematics assists his technicians with determining when faulty fuel injectors need to be replaced.

“(Staff) can determine which one is not performing to specifications and replace it. The computer is needed to put in codes for the injectors,” Sherman explained. 

After returning from the Christmas break, he said another technician used diagnostic software to diagnose a bad EGR valve. 

“He was able to replace the part without sending the bus to the dealer and waiting for them to diagnose the problem and make the necessary repairs,” Sherman added. “We have only had to send one bus to the dealer in the recent past; this was due to a problem with a multiplexer.”