A first-of-its-kind connected vehicle pilot program run near Atlanta using cellular vehicle-to-everything technology and prioritized traffic signals resulted in combined improvements that could help address school bus driver shortages, reduce fuel expenditures and maintenance costs through route optimization.
The Connected Vehicle Student Safety Pilot Program performed in April was the result of a partnership between Applied Information, Inc., Blue Bird Corporation, and Navistar, the maker of IC Bus models. In the initial phase of research, the two school buses owned by Fulton County School System operated student pick-up and drop-off routes with the assistance of traffic signals that would turn green when detecting the oncoming buses.
Both buses – a 2019-model year, propane-powered Blue Bird Vision and a 2012-model year, diesel-powered IC Bus CE Series – transported elementary, middle and high school students. Applied Information installed field monitoring units (FMUs) at 62 signalized intersections that the buses equipped with onboard units communicated with. When the FMUs detected the two school buses, the light would transition to green or remain green for an extended period of time so the school buses could continue without slowing down or stopping.
Overall, both buses combined for average improvements of 13.3 percent less travel time, 18 percent increase in speed of route completion, 40.4 percent reduction in number of stops, and 10.4 percent less fuel consumption and emissions.
“I was very surprised with the results. I expected an increase in time efficiency and fuel mileage but was not expecting what the final results showed,” commented Trey Stow, director of transportation operations for Fulton County Schools. “The possibility that this could have on the ability to do efficient double backs for some schools could be extremely helpful with the current driver shortage that so many are experiencing. We are very fortunate to have a progressive city like Alpharetta that has invested in this kind of infrastructure for their citizens that allowed this study to take place. It has allowed us to see what possibilities are available that we never thought could be.”
During a webinar on Tuesday about the project, he said that the district currently does not have the budget retrofit its entire fleet of 930 buses with the technology. But he noted that there may be grant funding available to help.
Bryan Mulligan, president of Applied Information, said the average retail price to deploy connected vehicles as aftermarket retrofit is about $5,000 per bus, which includes installation. It’s about the same investment for an intersection.
Previously, Stow told School Transportation News his school bus drivers also reported that student onboard behavior improved, compared to when their buses did not receive green-light priority.
“The students had less tendency to misbehave as long as the bus stayed in motion,” he relayed. “Not having to stop at the red lights allowed this to happen. The safety factor of not having buses [sitting] in traffic while on route is also considered from our perspective. A lot of accidents happen at intersection. If our buses are able to navigate these intersections and out of dangerous situations, that is a win for everyone.”
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According to a report on the pilot program published by Applied Information, follow-up interviews conducted with the school bus drivers in May indicated that because their buses stopped less frequently while on route, there were fewer opportunities for students to get out of their seat or participate in unsafe behaviors.
Additionally, the school bus drivers said they were able to leave the transportation center later and still arrive at stops and schools earlier. This led to less stress experienced by the school bus drivers and more time to focus on student behavior and safe driving practices. Students were also able to arrive to school on time and receive school-provided morning breakfast meals.
Going forward, Mulligan said technology could also be used in transit buses as well as fire trucks and ambulances. He also noted that there is no barrier to deploying it in electric vehicles, and there are plans to equip an electric school bus with the technology in the future.
Earlier this year, Applied Information also announced a partnership with Audi to provide dashboard warnings that alert motorists about upcoming Blue Bird school bus stops. The companies later announced they are also working with IC Bus. Peter Ashley, vice president of business development for Applied Information, presented on that technology during the STN EXPO Reno in July.
Taylor Hannon-Ekbatani contributed to this report.