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The Yellow Tech Race

A common public perception of the yellow school bus is that the iconic vehicle has changed very little over the decades. Having ridden only sporadically during my formative years, to and from the odd field trip in elementary school and to and from football games or track meets in high school, I certainly recall the noise and the fumes. The rides were bumpy. I distinctly recall one instance, when I had to sit in a row near the back. The wheel well took up half the seat. Remember those models?

There were no seatbelts, though the motorcoaches that took me to my varsity football games my junior and senior years had them. Yet no one buckled up.I don’t remember much else, as most of the time I was in preparation mode for the game ahead or too exhausted (or giddy, we won a lot!) afterward to notice. And I certainly don’t recall any semblance of technology, at least what my younger mind could grasp.

But as we who are close to the student transportation industry know well, today’s school buses are much different than those from years past. The introduction of multiplex wiring opened the door to a host of technological advances. Technicians can diagnose defects at speeds that couldn’t be grasped 20 or 30 years ago. And a host of hardware and software solutions can be added as either factory or aftermarket options to provide even greater safety and efficiency.

Meanwhile, electric and propane school buses, while combined only representing about 10 percent of school buses nationwide, have reduced onboard noise to library-esque levels. At least on these vehicles, drivers are reporting that students are better behaved, and video is backing up those assertions. This is fitting for the so-called classroom on wheels that many in this industry celebrate.

It has taken a while, but the vehicles and the related software and hardware can fully complement the rides at a 21st Century clip. From advanced driver assistance systems to tablets, artificial intelligence routing software to digital cameras, Wi-Fi hot spots to V2X, school busing has gone high-tech. Still, as we read this month, there remain plenty of growth opportunities ahead for the student transportation industry.

As we talk with readers, both operators and vendors alike, we hear a common story of implementing technology but not being able to fully utilize all the functionality. This stuff costs money, after all, and student transportation services have historically only accounted for 10 to 15 percent of school district budgets. That is not to mention districts are experiencing one of the worst staffing shortages in memory, though it is encouraging to hear about more medium- and even small-sized school transportation departments being able to create new positions for data analysts, when previously such positions were only found in the largest urban operations.

This is vital because parents—the true “customers” along with their children—are demanding technology for the school bus ride. Even more encouraging is that more and more technology is coming standard on the school bus. What is capable electronically on today’s school buses is truly remarkable.

While the external appearance of school buses may seem to have not evolved much (though look at how much body styles have changed over the past 100 years), the discerning student transportation professional knows school buses have grown by leaps and bounds.

There remain plenty of growth opportunities to fully harness the power of data on today’s vehicles yet challenges in realizing the potential. Even the largest school districts with the biggest budgets aren’t yet able to implement all the bells and whistles, so it can be discouraging for the smaller, more rural districts to wrap their heads around how to make all this technology work for them. But case studies do exist. Continue to read the pages of School Transportation News, both print and online, and seek out the stories and perspectives of peers, either in neighboring districts or from across the state or country. Industry conference season is ramping up, with essentially all state and national associations back to in-person events. Your vendors are also great resources.

So, while the appearance of school buses, at least outwardly, haven’t changed much, discerning student transportation professionals know the vehicles have grown by leaps and bounds. The mission before us all is making sure school administrators, parents and the larger community know as well.

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

Related: Have you had to get creative with your operation’s routing due to the school bus driver shortage?
Related: Technology Improves Driver Recruitment and Retention at Missouri District
Related: How Technology Solves School Bus Routing Challenges
Related: Propane School Buses: Clean Energy is Ready to Roll


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