Contrary to popular belief and its appearance, the school bus has changed greatly over the past several decades in terms of onboard technology. These advances, while not highly visible to the general public, prove that adoption as well as training needs are moving faster than ever before, which is only made faster by the new novel coronavirus pandemic. Not only in terms of advancements, but also in terms of adoption and training.
School Transportation News Editor-in-Chief Ryan Gray noted during the “Let’s Talk: Embracing Technology Disruption with Cautious Optimism in the COVID-19 Era” on Tuesday that technology is moving at warp speed, like in a “Star Wars” movie.
Or perhaps, he added during the Bus Technology Summit panel discussion on Tuesday, some transportation directors or bus company operators may feel like a dog chasing a squirrel, or multiple squirrels for that matter, with all the new advancements popping up. Never being able to set one’s sight on something, before another option arrives.
Coincidentally, Tesla held its Battery Day and shareholder event also on Tuesday. While no announcement was ultimately made, Jim Harris, an expert on technology disruption, shared during the panel that he had hoped Elon Musk would share details on Tesla’s new million-mile battery. He said the development should be a game-changer in the transportation industry, as it will influence future visions and the various enablers around the nation.
Harris said everything is changing at the same time, for instance, he said it’s like trying to fly an airplane while also building it and designing it.
Autonomous & Electric Vehicles
“Autonomy,” which is almost perceived as a bad word in pupil transportation, doesn’t mean that starting tomorrow every school bus is going to be self-driving and school bus drivers are no longer needed.
Instead, Stan Caldwell, an associate professor of transportation and policy at Carnegie Mellon University, shared on the panel that he prefers the word automated to autonomous. He noted that the goal of the artificial intelligence brain that drives automation won’t replace the human element but instead will result in improved vehicle safety and efficiency. He noted that there are automated vehicles are the road today, for instance, cars that park themselves or stop on their own, but they require the supervision of a human driver.
Harris said that autopilot in airplanes is an example of automation that has existed for decades. In fact, the first iteration was in 1912. With autonomous vehicles, Harris noted that drivers are grateful when the features kick in.
Kayne Smith, director of transportation for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Texas, said he is looking at school buses with collision mitigation technology for the next round of bus purchasing. Yet he said his drivers prefer the function of notifying the school bus driver when danger is near, instead of the technology taking over the school bus entirely.
Meanwhile, Katrina Falk, transportation director for Shelby Eastern Schools in Indiana, said she is purchasing Thomas Built Bus Saf-T-Liner EFXs and is looking forward to more technology options becoming available for that particular model.
When looking at adding new technology, Falk said it’s also a team decision, and her 18 school bus drivers help test drive the new technology before they make the final purchase. So, with anything else, drivers will help her decide for future purchases on whether they prefer a system that takes control of the vehicle, or a system that notifies the driver of a potential threat.
In terms of electric, Falk noted that as a smaller district, Shelby Eastern is not in the process of adopting it. While she noted she does have routes that could account for the electric technology, it’s not in the playing cards just yet.
Smith said while his district, the third-largest in Texas, doesn’t have any electric school buses currently, he understands that’s where the future is going. He said he is already in discussions with local government leaders who have been utilizing the technology in transit vehicles.
The Human Element
How are you retraining drivers? How do you ensure they are valued, especially during this pandemic? How do you ensure they are staying trained? These were only a few of the questions asked during the panel session on Tuesday.
Even with such a large focus on the future of technology, the best resource school districts have and always will have is school bus drivers.
Smith said his driver retention rate has increased by 7.9 percent over the past year without increasing any pay rates. Instead, the department has focused on employee morale and making sure leaders are always visible and available. He said Cypress-Fairbanks is focused on team-building exercises and involving drivers in any process.
Nancy Clavette, assistant transportation director at Oyster River School District in New Hampshire, agreed. “Image and value is important,” the attendee commented. “School bus drivers need to see their value and recognized as full-time staff with benefits,” she said in the session chat.
Harris noted that engaging staff more when looking at new technology will lead to a higher adoption rate. Otherwise, he said, if employees don’t know what the equipment does or its purpose, they may not understand its true potential. As a result, they might fight the adoption. “No involvement equals no equipment,” Harris shared.
What to Consider When Looking at New Technology
What is your end goal? What technology do you already in place? What technology partners integrate well together? These are questions you should be asking yourself before purchasing new technology.
Falk said it’s important to take one’s time and do extensive research when looking at new technology. She said to make sure the product being pitched to your operation will work with your needs, and with the school buses and technology you already have.
Harris piggy-backed on Falk’s comment, noting that salespeople are going to say whatever they need to say to sell the product. Yet, he encouraged decision makers to purchase the product they need, not the one that has all the flashy bells and whistles.
Smith said his district threw technology at their drivers “fast and furious,” when the pandemic started in March. He said prior to that, Cy-Fair tried to get school bus drivers up to date on email and different programs. But in March, the transportation office needed to get drivers involved immediately.
He said the office worked with its drivers to get them accustomed to the new technology and even started performing virtual in-services. Since then, he said morale and technology adoption has been smooth.