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Diagnosing Engine, Vehicle Faults Before Reaching Emergency Status

When 911 is called and a patient is transported via an ambulance, hospital staff already know all the pertinent information, such as vital signs, background on the incident that took place, and other relevant data, all sent directly to the emergency room. They don’t start from scratch when the patient arrives. For a more mundane example, what about when Amazon suggests it’s time to order another bag of coffee beans, just as your current one is getting low? The same concept can be applied to the transferring of school bus health information and telematics to fleet directors.

“The purpose of telematics is to really be preventive,” Antonio Civitella, the president and CEO of Transfinder, explained. He added that school bus mechanics or drivers are now alerted to issues before they see a check engine light or low tire pressure warning. “We want to make sure we prevent the big things from happening,” he continued, adding that Transfinder’s Service finder can be programed to notify mechanics of any service required issue, such as when the tire pressure starts dropping below a certain percentage.

He said the data can be transmitted via cellular network or Wi-Fi, though he cautions student transporters on the use of Wi-Fi, as the vehicle would have to be within certain hotspot zones. However, he noted that, regardless of the communication method, the main point is that the vehicle is communicating a code that is actionable to keep the vehicle on the road and out of the maintenance facility.

“Once upon a time, bus components were all mechanical and you had a bunch of mechanics and they wrote hand notes and they fixed things when they broke, but so many things are moving from mechanical to digital,” said Zach Moren, the sales engineer at Transfinder. “Bus-es are full of sensors now, and as we move into a [digital world], you’re going to have so many more computers running the bus and making it operational.”Is there something plugged into the school bus on-board diagnostics port, he asked. Are maintenance staff getting the readings they need? And even more so, is technology like fleet maintenance software, keeping track of the history?

“What’s the degradation level of a battery? Maybe there’s a bus that could run a two hour route last year that nowadays the battery’s not going to run because it’s breaking down,” Moren continued. “Well, if you’re just handwriting notes, and they’re being filed away in a cabinet, there’s no way you’re going to be able to stay on top of those digital components with the way the vehicles are changing now.”

Andrew DeBolt, the lead equipment mechanic for San Jose Unified School District in California, said all of his district’s 101 school buses are equipped with a Geotab vehicle tracking device. The devices were installed about a year ago. Since then, he’s been in the process of refining the notifications the mechanics receive. He said the system sends a lot of emails and without setting parameters, one could get upwards of 300 notifications a day on different vehicle updates. However, he’s been narrowing it down and setting notifications for reports that are important to the vehicle health, such as a “check engine” light on a school bus.

“There’s a lot of data,” DeBolt noted. “The nice thing about it for us, and how we’ve utilized it the most, is the driver will notice the check engine light is on, and I will have already gotten the notification, and I can go into the system and say yes or no, you’re ok to keep driving.” He added this is especially helpful when a driver is on a field or activity trip and they no longer need to guess whether or not they will make it back without breaking down. DeBolt added that the vehicle itself has a cellular connection, which is how it sends information to the server, and he accesses it on his iPad via Wi-Fi, so he must be in the building or on Wi-Fi to get the notifications.

DeBolt added that the San Jose Unified was also in the process of installing the software on its 115 white fleet vehicles, three of which are electric-battery powered. He noted that Geotab integrates well into electric vehicles, and he advised other districts to ensure that the vehicle telematics software they use has easy integration for all vehicle types, so that they don’t have to run two systems. He said he is looking forward to seeing what the notifications will look like for the electric vehicles through Geotab. Addressing the transition to electric vehicles, Transfinder’s Civitella and Moren both noted that while there are fewer moving parts than a diesel engine, there is still a lot of information the vehicle needs to report back on, such as charge status.

Communicating Vehicle Health on Electric:

Bryant Maxey, senior product marketing specialist for Zonar Systems, added that electric buses have fewer moving parts, but with any new technology comes new problems. “One very important difference with electric buses is what is the charge level of the battery or battery level,” he said. “It is commonly referred to as State of Charge (SoC) percent. Zonar is able to capture that new EV signal from the bus and display it [in] real time in our fleet management platform, Ground Traffic Control.”Maxey added that Ground Traffic Control will help fleet managers increase their range awareness and use each electric school bus to their best advantage.

These solutions include locating where each electric bus is in real time, dis-patching electric buses based on their current state of charge, optimizing their routes by reviewing trip history, viewing how much battery each route consumes, and identifying electric buses that aren’t properly charged as planned. He noted that Zonar’s open API integrates with third-party maintenance systems and offers FaultIQ, a fleet diagnostics portal that monitors and prioritizes maintenance based on a fleet’s active fault codes.

Meanwhile, Brian Apunda, the director of marketing for FleetSoft, added that the combination of telematics and maintenance data is helping schools pinpoint avoidable expenses and encourages more efficiency improvements inside and outside of the bus garage. “Since electric vehicles don’t have a front engine, it means maintenance diagnoses will focus on things like battery temperature or battery life,” he said. “That’s not to say there won’t be occasional issues with electrical issues or issues with vehicle components but maintenance on these types of vehicles will look very different.”

He explained that FleetSoft’s software serves as a solution for predictive maintenance by automatically sending odometer readings, engine hours and reported problems in DVIRs to FleetSoft, which triggers maintenance reminders that create work orders.“Thankfully, data is transmitted instantly to mechanics in their FleetSoft mechanic user account for their school district,” Apunda said. “Whether or not the device used to access their FleetSoft account is connected by Wi-Fi or cellular does not significantly affect performance or the user experience.”

He added that FleetSoft and other fleet maintenance technologies are turning mechanics into real owners of their processes. “These systems are helping mechanics see the bigger picture when issues come up,” he said. “For instance, an issue with a new set of bus tires could reveal a widespread quality control issue with a tire vendor.”

Transfinder’s Moren said maintenance software also tracks the total cost of ownership of the school bus and can help directors compare diesel to electric, for example. He explained that because the software works as a vehicle asset management system, technicians will be able to see all of the components, such as mileage, how often the vehicle is fueling up, and the work that’s being done on it, all in one place.

“What I can do now is open up my vehicle and I can see that whole picture … I can see how much money I spent, how many miles this vehicle drove over the past year, how much gas is it guzzling everyday so that I can make much more informed decisions,” Moren added. “Without having that technology in place, it is much, much harder to operate and manage these fleets.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2023 issue of School Transportation News.


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