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Technically Speaking

Technology has gradually created a change in the paradigm for student transportation. What was once thought of as expensive frills are now necessary features for tracking key performance indicators. GPS, telematics, engine diagnostics student identification software, tire pressure monitoring and connectivity software comprise just a portion of the smorgasbord of technology options school districts can choose from to meet their various their needs. While these options can seem overwhelming, the good news is that they are designed to reduce transportation costs and increase the life expectancy of school buses as well as the safety of students and drivers.

Data collected is increasingly captured via tablets and transmitted directly to a server and viewed by fleet managers and school administrators. Drivers can actively interface with devices during pre- and post-trip inspections when the bus is not in operation. Visual devices such as Zonar’s 2020 Android tablet and Synovia Solutions’ Mobile Data Terminal go dark when the bus is in motion so the driver is not distracted. Contact with the driver during those times is usually done by two-way radios, which are increasingly digital-minded with enhanced tracking features of their own.

The new technology helps school districts overcome inclement weather, geography and traffic logistics. This enables dispatchers to plan routes more efficiently and alter routes in real time to avoid traffic jams and accidents. GPS allows fleet supervisors to determine the location of a bus in real time. Telematics enable fleet managers to monitor bus engine and system health, and to determine if there is problem area before a failure occurs. Some systems even recommend the type of preventive action that should be taken.

Many breakdowns are avoided because fault codes alert technicians to potential mechanical failures before they occur. Drivers are unaware this is happening and are notified only if there is an imminent emergency. This keeps buses running, the students and drivers safe, maintenance costs down and overall transportation efficiency up. 

TECHNOLOGY TRUMPS THE ELEMENTS

The Saratoga Springs City Schools is in upstate central New York about 40 minutes north of Albany near the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Officials there say the weather can swing from a heat index of up to 100 degrees in the summer to almost minus 30 degrees in winter, with snow drifts taller than many of the elementary students. A technological advantage was an educational and a safety necessity.

“First, we’re an educational institution,” said Saratoga Springs Fleet Supervisor Chuck Tanzer. “We have budgetary constraints just like everyone else, but we need the technology to keep up with the conditions we have to operate in.”

The technology Tanzer referred to is a GPS system powered by GeoTab GPS hardware that integrates with Tyler Telematic GPS from Tyler Technologies. The system also ties in with OnCommand Connection, a remote diagnostic system developed by Navistar that is new to the school bus market. It will be standard on all IC Bus school buses that use an approved telematics partner.

Tanzer said the technology has prevented major chaos on winter mornings because the department can conduct a diagnostic triage of school buses to see which ones have the potential of not starting. Those are serviced first.

Tanzer said children are safer when the buses are fully operational. “If a vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, it is in a much more precarious situation than when it is on its route,” Tanzer said. “Kids are safer when the bus is rolling, and anything we can do to facilitate that makes it a safer environment for the kids.”

The collaboration between IC Bus, Tyler and GeoTab is indicative of a technological partnership between technology companies that manufacture their products with open architecture so they are compatible. One reason for this is that school districts seldom deal with a single vendor.

Dr. Jeff Butts, superintendent of the Metropolitan School District in Wayne Township outside of Indianapolis, faces a similar challenge as Saratoga Springs – keeping students safe and buses on the road in inclement weather. Butts told STN that 78 percent of his community lives at the poverty level and many children do not have the appropriate winter clothing. Students can’t be standing for long periods of time at their bus stops during the winter months. 

“For us, it’s another safety factor for our children because anytime anything happens in regard to the weather and people are driving more cautiously, it causes our buses to be delayed,” Butts said. “We wanted to make sure our children were not waiting at the bus stop longer than they had to and that parents knew when their children would be home.”

The district is meeting the challenge with a combination of GPS from Synovia Solutions, a route building system by Transfinder and a diagnostic system by Zonar. Synovia’s GPS system uses a durable mobile data terminal to communicate with drivers. The MDT screen goes blank and displays only the date and time when the bus is in motion to avoid driver distraction.

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Texas announced recently that for the 2015-16 school year it is adding GPS transmitters to increase efficiency, improve parental communication and enhance student safety. Also, nearly half of CFISD students will receive identification cards. “GPS-enabled buses will make it possible for us to pinpoint bus locations in real-time, all the time,” said Matt Morgan, assistant superintendent of support services. “Campus leaders can use this to efficiently manage pick-up and drop-off procedures at each school.”

CFISD transportation staff will be able to use GPS data to monitor bus idle time, routing information, fuel consumption and bus speed. Zonar is the CFISD software provider.

Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools integrates Edulog’s EduTracker GPS and AVL software system with the Zonar V3 GPS devices. Paul Osland, the new director of facilities for Chicago, said GPS keeps school buses in constant contact with the three school bus contractors the district works with — Allentown Bus Service, Falcon Transportation and Illinois Student. And district employees interact with the data utilizing Zonar’s Ground Traffic Control via a secure web portal.

“Its high-definition transmission capability means there are much fewer dead spots throughout the city and fewer instances of lag time in obtaining information,” he added.

The GPS also ties in with Edulog’s routing and scheduling software and its time and attendance tracker.

Everything, together, has resulted in big-time savings for the district, to the tune of $20 million. Osland explained that a large chunk of that, $15 million, resulted from savings on fleet operating costs by reducing the number of buses to 1,235 last school year from 1,600 four years earlier. That equates to $37,000 per bus.

“By optimizing routes, we created paired runs — each bus makes two trips instead of one,” he continued., adding that Zonar’s Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report, or EVIR, was “key” in helping Chicago realize efficiencies by integrating student checks into the drivers’ routines.

“…(A) first run for each bus costs us about $285 per day on average, or about $51,000 annually. An average second run costs just about $80 per day, or $14,000 annually,” he continued.  “With all other things remaining the same, those are permanent annual savings.”

CONTRACTORS

Like in Chicago, private contractors must satisfy the needs of potential clients and be willing to “sweeten the pot” to gain a competitive edge. This is especially true when it comes to technology.

First Student is a strategic partner of Zonar and the largest student transportation contractor in North America, transporting 6 million students daily in 50,000 buses. Steve Roessler, senior vice president of operations, said GPS is definitely a necessity and is standard on all company buses.

“The way we see it is if you’re not asking for GPS on your vehicles you are behind the times,” Roessler said. “Your ability to integrate telematics with other technology sets you apart.”

Roessler said telematics helps transportation directors base their operations on facts and arms them with information to refute or confirm any claims made against the bus driver. “And with telematics you can fix something before it becomes serious,” he said. “Engine management will look at past performance and give the health of the engine.”

Roessler said there are some “game-changers” coming, such as predictive analytics that will indicate that a battery will die two or three days before it actually does. “It’s a lot better to deal with it before it happens than after the bus is on the side of the road,” Roessler said. “There will be evolution on the maintenance side as these vehicles become smarter.”

Cook-Illinois Corporation is a private carrier that serves about 75 school districts in the greater Chicago area. It operates 18 bus companies and 2,000 buses. Clifton Pierluissi, director of routing and telematics, said GPS and cameras are the most common request from clients. “Not every district but most ask for GPS, cameras and routing software. That’s what is becoming more common in bid specifications,” he said. “Mostly it’s for analyzing routes for efficiency and to see how it fits into our current scheme.”

The company uses technology developed by Tyler Technologies and Zonar. “It’s huge to be able to see what’s happening on the bus route, to see what the bus driver is actually doing,” Pierluissi added. “We can see what the actual conditions are. A router with that information can make more informed decisions.”

VENDORS’ VIEW

Bill Brinton, Zonar’s senior vice president for business development and a co-founder of the firm, said requests for proposals received from potential and existing clients reflects the emerging popularity of the available technological array. “We are seeing more RFPs for GPS and AVL systems, and we are seeing a rise in those same RFPs asking for student ridership technology,” Brinton said. “Many RFPs also specifically ask for in-vehicle tablets or devices. Many fleets and districts are already convinced by the growing nature of these solutions that they will become the norm soon.”

Bill Westerman, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Synovia, said it is no longer a question of why for GPS tracking but when. “It is more common now for people to consider it,” Westerman said. “People are upgrading to more capable technology, we see that a lot. People are realizing that it is not a frill. They can realize some hard savings and better service.”

Ted Thien, senior vice president and general manager of Tyler Technologies’ Versatrans solution, said technology and the school bus industry have traded places over the past half-decade. “Five years ago technology companies were pulling the industry along,” Thien said. “Now the industry is demanding technology solutions which are specifically designed for K-12 transportation and integrated with each other.”

Justina Morosin, vice president of North American Sales for IC Bus, said she has also noticed the trend, but added she did not think it is mandatory. “We are seeing increasing numbers of customers putting the telematics hardware on their fleets,” Morosin said. “We see this from school districts and from contractors, but I do not see where it is deemed mandatory.” 

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