Whether school districts and transportation contractors are on their first, second or even third-generation wireless system, demand for data from the school bus is likely to continue growing exponentially as its value increases with real-time delivery.
John Harden, who wears many hats as transportation director for the 1,500-student Manitou Springs (Colo.) School District 14, said wireless data technology delivers more than information. "Peace of mind," Harden said. "Peace of mind, for sure."
Harden, who even pitches in on maintenance for the district's 17-bus fleet, made the first step into wireless data technology with GPS fleet tracking and handheld devices that drivers use for pre- and post-trip inspections.
"Doing everything that I do, I told my boss it would be easier if we could key in information instead of having a bunch of paperwork that I had to look at," Harden said. "Before (drivers) leave the bus barn, I know they did their pre-trip and before they go home, I know they did their post-check. At the end of the route, the driver goes to the back of the bus to check for students and the device lets me know the driver has gone to that zone and inspected the bus.”
He added, "Before, we did it all with paper. Now, I know in real time that they did it. Once the drivers got used to it, they like it a lot better, too. It makes their pre-trip go a little quicker." Harden has moved to the next phase of wireless technology, testing Zonar's Z Pass system on special education buses to record when and where students board and exit along routes. He intends to continue that test into the 2017-2018 school year.
Kevin Mest, senior vice president and general manager of passenger services at Seattle-based Zonar Systems, estimated that approximately half of the nation's 480,000 yellow buses are equipped with at least rudimentary GPS or more sophisticated equipment.
"We're a long way from where we should be. It should be standard in every school, particularly rural districts," he said. "If you're in rural Wisconsin in the winter and it's snowing, you really like to know where that bus is."
Increased features on passenger vehicles, a generational shift among transportation professionals who have grown up with such technology, and the public expectation for technology on yellow buses are three key reasons driving wireless data technology, said Mest, who noted that Zonar's GPS is now standard equipment on all makes of Thomas Built Buses.
He described the technology adoption process that Harden and other transportation professionals follow as "crawl, walk, run."
As customers become comfortable with streaming data systems, they advance to more advanced equipment. In turn, other districts and contractors follow suit. "It is a rapidly changing industry and a couple things have really helped address that," Mest said.
The first is the platform that onboard smart tablets provide to deliver information about on-the-fly routing, vehicle diagnostics, turn-by-turn navigation, driver coaching and more. Second, wireless data systems are becoming more affordable. He pointed to big-screen TVs as an example of technology that costs far less today than it did years ago.
"Telematic systems are very affordable and, frankly, they pay for themselves by reducing idling time, reducing pre- and post-trip time (for inspections and paperwork), managing speed so you have safer performance or get better fuel economy. It's a long list that's very easily attainable," Mest said.
He called the information gathered by wireless systems as "executable, meaningful data."
"If a driver is late and I get a report the next day to review the next day, it's not very actionable," he explained. "But if I get an alert in real time because there's geo-fencing around the bus yard and I know the bus left the yard late, you've moved it from a report a backroom manager is dealing with to something you can address in real time. When you receive data that a driver is not obeying the posted speed limit, drifting lanes or following too closely, now you have a coaching tool to provide safer service."
Curtiss Routh, vice president of sales at Omaha-based REI, agreed that demand for wireless data technology is on the rise across the board. "Two or three years ago, it was the large districts that had the funds available to set up wireless infrastructure and put routers on buses. Now, we see requests from districts running even 10 to 12 buses," he said. "Across the country, demand for automated video and data download has grown exponentially from even a few years ago. Everybody, for the most part, is interested and it all comes down to budget availability."
Convenience and real-time fleet management are two factors fueling growing interest. "Maybe a driver takes the bus home at night. The director understands he or she can get all the data sent to their laptop and they can manage the fleet in real time,” Routh said, noting that transportation directors often begin conversations with an expressed desire for live bus video.
"They'll say they want to see if drivers are doing things correctly and we'll say, 'You don't need live video for that.' Speed, acceleration, braking, staying on the route, and other factors can all be sent through REI's software," Routh explained. "You can have the same information, for every bus and driver, across the entire fleet in an easy-to-read format so the transportation director only has to look at the report."
Routh said transportation professionals considering wireless data technology should consider a purchase from every angle, ranging from budget realities and potential pros and cons to local culture. "Some schools say they have not put cameras on buses because they are concerned with driver and rider privacy. It's rare, but if that's the local culture, that's the local culture. If that's the case, the school should take time to explain it to the public before moving ahead," he advised.
Recalling that two-way radios were still an optional feature on buses in the early 1980s, Zonar’s Mest said advancements in wireless data technology are part of a natural progression. "We see the speed of change in our everyday lives. It has tended to move a bit slower sometimes in the bus industry because it is already the safest mode of transportation but, clearly, we have better tools that provide better results. The gaps in radio coverage have been covered by cell phones and it's not just voice anymore, but we're moving data. That data really changes the game," Mest said.
This article reprinted from the August 2017 issue of School Transportation News.