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Catching the Horse Up to the Cart

Regardless of individual thoughts on the future of electric vehicles, the announcement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean School Bus Program (CSBP) arrived with much fanfare, as the industry collectively applauded the first sizeable pot of federal funding support for school busing. Sure, the program is set to expire by the end of 2026, but it finally brought school buses to a similar plane as their transit relatives, and it created a national buzz that resulted in a new spotlight on the importance of student transportation. The attention is a very good thing.

This month, a climate scientist with the EPA who helped develop the current five-year, $5 billion CSBP, will talk at the STN EXPO Reno about this unprecedented opportunity for school districts, tribal governments and school bus contractors. It’s the second consecutive year an EPA representative has taken part in the conference, this year joined by a U.S. Department of Energy representative and one from the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation.

Still, the move toward zero-emissions school buses is not without its challenges. Seemingly hundreds of pages in this magazine have been dedicated to related topics these past several years. One of the main issues is infrastructure, or the lack thereof. There will also be plenty of similar discussions this month in Reno, some of which may center on belief that the cart was put before the horse and that more money should be made available sooner for electric infrastructure rather than the buses. For example, I learned recently of more school districts that have taken ownership of electric school buses only to see them remain parked because there are no chargers to power them. It’s a challenge the earliest adopting California school districts learned the hard way four or five years ago, and now others nationwide are having similar experiences.

This all occurs as the EPA is essentially regulating diesel engines out of existence. While manufacturers are publicly saying diesel production will continue through most of the next decade, school districts in certain states such as those following California Air Resources Board regulations are already reporting that they have reached or soon will the last diesel procurement cycle. And where diesel continues to be available, the word on the street is that volumes will be low and the prices at a premium. Aside from being pushed toward adopting electric or propane autogas school buses (and continuing to run CNG in the pockets of the country where the infrastructure is in place), the result will be fleets needing to operate their vehicles longer. This reality comes at a time when the industry is already behind on its bus replacement cycles. Yes, new buses will feature cleaner emissions and the latest technology. They should also last longer. More so than future funding, artificial intelligence figures to play a leading role in helping school districts and bus companies get the horse back in front of the cart in terms of safely and efficiently extending the lifecycles of their assets, thus protecting their substantial investments. School buses, after all, are only getting more expensive.

Witness what Beacon Mobility’s companies across two dozen states are already doing. Starting on page 36 this month, we meet the man responsible for this shift to predictive maintenance programs: Bill Griffiths, the School Transportation News and National School Transportation Association 2023 Innovator of the Year. The second annual award recognizes an individual employed by a transportation contractor who is leading the new technology path.

A former National Public Fleet Manager of the Year, Griffiths is quick to point out that it’s been a total team effort at Beacon, the fourth largest contractor in the nation with about 12,000 vehicles in its collective fleet. A.I. based fleet software and tablets are capturing and providing telematics data to give a complete view of vehicle usage and maintenance needs. Beacon companies are now or soon will be able to standardize maintenance operations across several different fuels the first 10 electric buses are in operation in Massachusetts and streamline inspection cycles. And the technicians are benefitting from the added training and support available to them.

It’s a connected vehicle trend that we at STN have been closely monitoring for the past several years. We are sure to see more of these innovations catch on industrywide. Fleets need the most bang for their (or Uncle Sam’s) buck when procuring and maintaining the next era of school buses, no matter the fuel or energy that powers them, so students will continue to have reliable trips to and from school.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the July 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: (STN Podcast E136) Do Your Homework: Texas District Taking School Bus Operations Electric By 2035
Related: IC Bus’ Morosin Highlights School Bus Industry Needs to Realize Zero Emissions
Related: Roundup: Green Bus Summit Sessions at STN EXPO Reno

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