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Technology is Bringing Profound Changes to Student Transportation

With the electrification and digitization of school bus fleets gaining momentum, there are many new issues and problems to address in terms of the design and implementation of all-digital technology. How will the new data sources be integrated and pushed out to improve user experience?

With advancements in the design and implementation of electric vehicles ever-changing, government and private-company leaders from several countries discussed ways to make the battery charging and data-gathering infrastructure more efficient, equitable, and satisfying to the end-users – in this case, public school districts.

A session at the Busworld North America’s Digital Summit on June 4, discussed the major issues and challenges facing the electrification and digitization of public school buses, as well as public and private transport vehicles. Tim Ammon, the owner of Decision Support Group, LLC, a consulting services firm in Rockville, Maryland, served as the session moderator.

One of the key issues facing the industry is the impact of digitization on end-users, in particular school districts. For example, Maureen Cosyn Heath of Southwestern Ontario Canada Student Transportation Services said she is focused on contracting and procurement rather than on operations. From her perspective, clients must learn to use data to drive their decisions.

She explained that this can be achieved by various levels of customer-focused data, which are designed for school administrators, parents, the community as well as data developers and designers.

“We have data from everywhere,” she said, “such as GIS on buses, student databases, bus registration forms, etc. But raw integration is more valuable for stakeholders in making their decisions. Where we land with all this data, how we achieve self-actualization and good business outcomes, is what matters on the district level. Our goal is operational and environmentally sustainable, fiscally responsible public policy around the use of digital technology. We’re looking at all the factors.”

But technology can also be a disruptor, she warns. “Think of Amazon and bookstores, Uber and taxis, Air B&B and hotels,” she suggested. “What will electrification do to school districts? Shouldn’t we think about this before plunging ahead?”

Meanwhile, GP Singh, the CEO and founder of Bytecurve, recalled that 10 to 12 years ago, “we used to have old equipment such as radio, DVD hard discs, video cameras, placards in the back of a school bus where drivers checked off students’ names pre-trip and post-trip and drivers marked all defects from each route on a paper list.

“But with the current rapid evolution of input, there’s a much greater demand on technology vendors to measure various aspects of operating systems such as school bus routes,” he continued.

Singh added that customers want real-time data and energy consumption curves. The designers and developers are racing to keep up as the pace of technology accelerates. They’ve already added features such as pre-trip and post-trip inspections, GPS, route and schedule deviations, child checks, and onboard cameras to capture critical events such as accidents, he explained.

Remote programming for vehicle diagnostics is also being tested along with driver diagnostics, a tool that measures driver performance. The challenge is to bring all of this together into a meaningful picture, Singh said.

“There are currently too many data points,” he noted. “Customers are overwhelmed. In the customer sites with too much tech, it feels like employees are working for the technology, to keep it running rather than the opposite, the tech working for the staff. Because of this, we need to provide actionable analytics and integration of data as part of our platform.”

Singh provided his bottom line. “We have to focus on getting kids to school safely and get it 100 percent right. Our school districts want slow evolution, not revolution,” he shared. “Technology is revolutionary, whereas the providers want it to be evolutionary. How can we reconcile the difference? One thing we’re sure of [is that] parents are increasingly demanding tools to track their students and their buses. How we do that makes all the difference.”

Cosyn Heath echoed his sentiment. “We are in a zero-fail industry,” she said. “All outcomes must be perfect.”

More Technology on the Horizon

Another key issue discussed during the virtual event was vehicles facing digitization, which refers to the vehicle capturing data which in turn is used to reduce service failures, maximize utilization and reduce costs of operation.

It is summed up by asking how school districts can continue to improve maintenance. Proposed solutions include implementing predictive maintenance, which uses data to predict failures to maximize utilization and reduce costs. This goes one step beyond proactive maintenance, by relying on failure codes captured by real-time systems.

Andy Ptak, the vice president of IT and CIO for National Express LLC., said that with predictive info at hand, district transportation staff can pre-schedule repairs and updates to prevent potential episodes and avoid out-of-service disruptions.

Meanwhile, digital routing is another technique being introduced. Real-time route analytics help reduce the risks inherent in every bus route and use software to eliminate time-wasting left turns and physically dangerous routes and intersections. The routing systems favor smoother runs, route optimization based on real-world data, and shrinking system-wide route timetables to maximize route efficiency. This offers multi-layered benefits, Ptak said. So much so that school districts cannot afford to overlook it, now that digital tools are available.


Related: Funding School Bus Technology for Student, Driver Health
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Related: Electric School Bus Development Has Left the Station
Related: School Bus Wi-Fi Supports Students at New Mexico District
Related: FCC Approves School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Under COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Fund


Driver-facing technology points to the urgent question of how to attract and retain school bus drivers. Ptak asked, “How can we improve driver safety? We’re installing tablets in all vehicles, to assist with our connected driver program which addresses every aspect of a driver’s job. [Such as] scheduling runs, time clock, in-cab coaching, [and] driver behavior analysis using video footage.”

Video helps identify issues of speeding, attention span, distracted driving and poor student interaction and outcomes.

Always-on driver monitoring can also help improve driver performance and eliminate potential or recurring road problems, which can be more easily addressed on route as well as at the transportation facility.

One example where this could come into play is if a driver forgets to report a construction zone, and a transportation manager questions their speed in that area.

Ptak concluded that “Data is the name of the game, that is exactly what we need to harvest. But right now, it takes too long to pull the data together and analyze it.”

He noted that the most urgent goal is to increase tech performance to warp speed so that the tools in development can be usefully applied. Technology is evolving as we speak, but in the meantime, the world of public education will have to live with disjointed, lurching-forward systems as their bus fleets are retired and replaced with all-new electric models.

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