The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) opened its annual conference in Kansas City with a panel session that featured a nostalgic review of past challenges the industry has faced over the past 50 years and where it is going: Autonomous vehicles and increased public scrutiny.
The panel on Oct. 30, facilitated by Ron Kinney, a NASDPTS past-president and retired director of student transportation for the California Department of Education, reviewed the latest challenge, automated and electronic innovations that are now appearing in automobiles and how they translate to school buses. For example, pilot autonomous shuttle developed by Transdev for use in Florida was shut down last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because it was not approved to transport students.
Panelists included Diana Hollander, the state director of transportation at the Nevada Department of Education who concluded her term as NASDPTS president at the conclusion of the conference on Oct. 31; Tom Cellitti, retired president of the IC Bus Division of Navistar; Charles Gauthier, former NASDPTS executive director and NHTSA official; and Bill Paul, CEO of School Transportation News and the originator of the NASDTPS Suppllier Council.
Gauthier, who oversaw the development of school-bus-specific Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards during his time with NHTSA, later helped prepare 20 data-focused position papers and information reports for NASDPTS. Gauthier became a public voice for pupil transportation, periodically testifying before the U.S. Senate and state legislatures, as well as often before the National Transportation Safety Board.
He lauded the continued school-bus-safety record of an average of eight students dying in school bus incidents per year, compared to the other half of the student population that does not ride the school bus and suffers an average of 800 deaths per year. However, one thing that the industry is lacking is a unified, immediate response mechanism to local and national media to help set the record straight when the industry receives undue negative press.
The School Bus Information Council provided hundreds of TV, radio and newspaper interviews, Gauthier informed the audience. “Our message was heard,” he stressed. However, because that group no longer exists, its point of view isn’t being presented, he noted.
“Contrary to popular belief, the feds don’t know everything,” Gauthier joked. “Making good public policy is difficult.”
School busing also leads to very emotional responses from the public, because of the precious cargo transported. He said emotion, supposition and misinformation are often strong, but when taken alone, they yield less than perfect or counter-productive decisions.
“Emotional issues should be acknowledged and discussed,” Gauthier commented. “Your job involves a public service that is often complex and often emotional. As leaders, you need to be able to explain the history, logic, data and science behind the association’s positions,” Gauthier concluded. “It took vision, leadership and commitment over the past 50 years for NASDPTS to get where it is today.”
Gauthier closed with, “Let’s remember” that the people in the school bus industry are parents themselves.
Hollander led off her comments with the observation that self-driving autonomous buses are here to stay. That is the new reality, she said, especially with the chronic driver shortage, the industry is a ripe opportunity for quick adaptation of those vehicles. However, she stressed, “I want zero crashes and zero injuries,” as she pointed out that the November 2016 Chattanooga, Tennessee incident was caused by human error.
But public acceptance will likely be the largest challenge, according to Hollander. Cybersecurity of the vehicles was her other major concern, with student management, bullying, parent support, newness of technology and the driver’s role, also likely factors.
NHTSA has already developed safety guidances for autonomous vehicles, Hollander stressed. Then she briefly polled the audience, and only two people indicated that they have ridden in an autonomous vehicle. Zero fatalities and zero crashes, are her two goals, she concluded.
Later in the day, Blue Bird, IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses representatives provided attendees with updates how the market is moving toward autonomous or automated controls, such as electronic stability control, collision avoidance systems and student detection systems.