STN EXPO Keynote Disrupts Assumptions About Barriers to Implementing New Tech

Jim Harris speaking at the STN EXPO on July 28, 2019.
Jim Harris speaking at the STN EXPO on July 28, 2019.

Author and internationally-renowned speaker Jim Harris illustrated how technology disruption, namely autonomous and electric vehicles, is driving a revolution of how people live, work and operate in their daily lives. But what it all could mean to student transportation, was at the top of the audience’s minds.

Harris opened the Sunday morning agenda at STN EXPO Reno with a keynote session that connected the dots for attendees via statistics. For example, Tesla market value overtook that of Ford two years ago, and Tesla recently surpassed Mercedes-Benz as the top-selling luxury car in Germany.

Meanwhile, over 72 percent of employee reimbursements for travel last year went toward Uber and Lyft rideshare service. At the same time, reimbursements for rental cars fell to only about 22 percent.

In other words, innovation breeds as well as kills.

But the barrier to accepting innovation, especially in price-sensitive circles such as school bus transportation, often boils down to an argument over increased costs. That is until those costs prove to be on a par or cheaper than the previous way of doing things.

For instance, autonomous technology in cars began around $200,000 in 2008, but today that cost is less than $1,000, he commented. And by 2025, passenger electric vehicles are forecast to be cheaper to buy, on average, than gasoline-powered cars.

The force at work, Harris explained, is exponential change. Physicist and computer scientist John Von Neumann referred to exponential change as “Technological Singularity.” The hypothesis is that an intelligence explosion of technology occurs at such an uncontrollable and irreversible magnitude, that it surpasses human intelligence and results in unfathomable changes to human civilization.

Harris said the point at which computers are more intelligent than humans is quickly coming. But that can be a good thing if society, and the school bus industry, is prepared for it.

Futurist Gerd Leonhard said nearly five years ago that humanity will see more change by 2030 than it saw over the previous 300 years. He said the result could be what he termed “hellven,” a combination of heaven and hell, as it could be both. Humans will never be faster, smarter and more efficient than machines, but Leonhard said that businesses must ensure the transition is mostly heaven by proving their own value.

Exponential change remains under society’s radar—until it emerges and revolutionizes the way we do things, for good, bad, but certainly not indifferently. It is best for organizations to be on the cutting edge of the change—better yet driving it, rather than being blindsided, which is also the title of Harris’ latest book.

Harris used the analogy of the ripening of an avocado. The fruit remains too hard until, suddenly, it achieves the desired tenderness for consumption. But don’t take too much time eating the avocado or it quickly spoils.

Amid increasingly intelligent smartphones, crowdsourcing navigation apps and other head-turning solutions, Google has deployed its Project Duplex, which uses artificial intelligence to engage a computer with real people to make phone reservations for such things as restaurants and hair appointments. Harris said the result of these technologies will be that people can refocus their time, attention and energy on other pursuits.

The same is possible for the workforce. Artificial intelligence has already made its way into school bus routing software.

“We can remove the dull and dangerous by automating,” he said.

Change is happening regardless if we like it or not, so Harris encouraged the audience to reframe their perspectives of what change means and how they can benefit from it. Harris opined that the rise of autonomous vehicles could actually improve the school bus driver shortage.

Professional drivers from other industries might be forced to find work with school districts and bus companies, because trucking firms and delivery companies no longer need humans behind the wheel. School buses, on the other hand, will likely always require an adult on board to manage student behavior and serve as an onboard educator.

Similarly, the standard availability of electronic vehicles could reinvent the role of vehicle mechanics. Harris shared that the electric motor in a Tesla consists of only 20 parts, compared to the 2,000 parts of an internal combustion engine. School districts and bus companies could address current staff shortages in the garage simply by purchasing electric buses.

Harris cited the experience of Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento, California, which operates more than two dozen electric school buses. Director of Transportation Tim Shannon, who was in the audience, said his data shows that the use of electric school buses reduces maintenance costs by 80 percent, because there is no engine to service, and there is longer brake and tire life wear.

Harris added that the only regular maintenance EVs require is topping off windshield wiper fluid.

While electric school buses are currently three times more expensive to purchase than a new diesel bus, Harris pointed out that the incremental cost is falling exponentially as the technology continually improves. And the gains seen via reduced fuel and maintenance costs are proving that EVs have a much lower total cost of ownership.

“I think every school district should have one electric bus so you can play with it,” he said, adding that school districts should use any grant funds at their disposal to ease the transition.

Even without state grant funds, Shannon said school districts can see full payback on the purchase price of an electric school bus within eight years.

An attendee shared with Harris and the rest of the audience that he walked into Sunday’s session completely opposed to electric school buses. But by using data and encouraging the attendees to reframe their perspectives, he said that Harris succeeded in changing his mind.

“The most exciting thing for me was people who, in the question and discussion period, [were] a complete skeptic about the electric vehicle, but you changed my view 180 degrees,” said Harris after the keynote. “And we need to get at least one bus so we can begin playing with it and understand how this is going to change the way we work. That, for me, was totally cool.”