Ian McKerlich, the president and CEO of Zonar Systems, kicked off the virtual Bus Technology Summit on Monday by describing the new opportunities present in this new era of technology.
Zonar, a technology company offering smart fleet management solutions based in Seattle, is the event’s title sponsor.
McKerlich outlined winners and losers in terms of technology adaption, what other countries are doing globally, where technology is going, and how to break down barriers in terms of school district adoption.
Take the music industry for example. McKerlich said the music industry was forced to evolve by addressing the way consumers now stream music and changing how record labels seek out new artists to sign.
Now, he said in one app and for one monthly fee consumers can access any music they want from one device. He said record labels, instead of the old way of finding new artists in nightclubs and bars, can now use internet platforms to identify upcoming artists, as well as on reality television shows like “America’s Got Talent.”
Student transporters, too, must evolve. Yet, he said government and education, in particular, are slower to adapt. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced technology on education that could have long-term benefits. Commercial vehicles, meanwhile, have made some progress in digitization, however, he said the adoption has been pretty inconsistent across sectors and geography.
While he advised companies and school districts to look toward global technology trends, such as the advancements being made in Asia and Europe, he also suggested that operations also engage partners and consultants closer to home to help them grow.
Where is the Technology Puck Heading?
McKerlich said Zonar is anticipating the megatrends affecting the industry. He identified four with the acronym CASE: Connectivity, Autonomy, Shared and Electrification.
In terms of connectivity, McKerlich said one has to be able to draw insights from the edge of devices on one’s network. He noted that not all investments will be the right ones, but value can be created by bringing the right signals back from the vehicle and linking to the right sources.
While he explained that the full extent of autonomous vehicles probably won’t hit the student transportation industry any time soon, if ever, school buses could still benefit from some lower-level autonomous features. McKerlich said there are early autonomous adoptions that can be made to school buses to make them safer. Yet he credited school bus drivers for their human roles of supervising of students and managing entry and egress, activities that a robot just couldn’t replicate.
A shared economy has already entered into the world of student transportation with the creation of transportation network companies that evolved from the hailed service transportation model. McKerlich said taking an average passenger car and using it in a carpool-like system makes that vehicle more cost-effective, which overall is good for the economy. He advised, for example, how transportation network companies engaged in student transportation continue to evolve will be interesting to watch and that transportation directors should keep an eye on them.
The most profound technology trend to impact student transportation is the electrification of vehicles, McKerlich added. He said electric school buses are well-suited for pupil transportation as routes are relatively short compared to long-haul trucking. There are a couple of runs a day, which in some areas allow time for mid-day charging. Many school bus depots have access to high-voltage lines and other energy systems that allow these vehicles to be charged in parallel relatively quickly.
While he explained that rural areas might have some challenges in terms of charging, he suggested that electric vehicles will pay off in the long run. He said Zonar believes energy costs will go down, and electric vehicles will be easier to maintain, as well as providing a better environment for the communities operating these buses.
How Can School Districts Break Barriers to Technology Adoption?
McKerlich also discussed four barriers to technology adoption. He said that while many school districts and companies get caught in the day-to-day operations, keeping an eye on goals remains paramount.
He advised transportation officials to look at other markets and toward other agencies for insights and assistance, and to compare and consider what customers are going to want in the next 10 years. Then, he said, decide on how you can deliver on those wants. Have a vision for the future, and write it down, he advised.
While he noted that funding remains a challenge, Zonar partners with other industry companies to offer grant programs, as well as offering their own grant program. He advised transportation officials to find their return on investments to these products, as a lot of opportunities pay for themselves, that is if someone goes into decision with the right mindset.
The timing of when to invest could also be daunting. He advised that student transporters need to be on the leading edge of the curve when it comes to adopting technology that is business-critical or could dramatically improve safety.
Above all, he pushed partnerships as the enablers that help technology grow.