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Maintaining the Emerging Fleet of Electric School Buses

If successful, some $20 billion may ultimately come from Washington, D.C. lawmakers to convert the nation’s fleet of gasoline- and diesel-powered school buses to electric vehicles as part of an overarching infrastructure plan to improve children’s health. Because school buses represent about 90 percent of the nation’s total bus fleet and transport nearly 25 million children each day, this is an important development and one that will present new challenges and opportunities.

One such challenge and opportunity is having technicians and mechanics who can provide service to the electric school buses that are emerging and populating school fleets throughout the country. Mark Alford, a heavy-duty mechanic with Cajon Valley Union School District located near San Diego is one of the two mechanics that service all the district’s buses.

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Cajon Valley has five electric buses from the Canadian-based manufacturer Lion Electric Company. Representatives came to the district and provided initial training that is covered under the purchase agreement and warranty. Lion also has online training and instruction that is self-serve.

“All the rules and regulations according to [the California Highway Patrol] apply the same, whether it’s gasoline, diesel, electric, propane, or CNG,” commented Alford. “Nothing really changes. Tires and brakes and general wear and tear, and all that other stuff is pretty much the same.”

Overall, he is upbeat about the electric buses, only raising caution that the range is limited but usually sufficient. “You get about 60 miles out of them at best running air conditioning or heaters,” he noted. “You’re really pretty limited on what you can do with them on a daily basis.”

Most shops will be used to maintaining diesel powered buses, which can be problematic at times due to regen issues and not as clean as electric vehicles (EV). In addition, schools have purchased buses from manufacturers that were pressured to maintain increasingly tougher emission standards. Much of the industry sees the transition to electric for school districts to be an easy one.

School Buses Are Not Alone in Facing Electric Vehicle Maintenance

Electric bus training is front and center in school bus OEM offerings. Blue Bird includes training as part of its “EV Ecosystem,” and training is a key component of the Thomas Built Buses Electric Bus Authority program. The same goes with the IC Bus NEXT eMobility Solutions as well as training by the Lion Electric Company.

“The transition for technicians and mechanics from maintaining internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to EVs is not expected to be difficult,” said Rich Mohr, global vice president for fleet solutions at ChargePoint based in Campbell, California. ChargePoint operates in 14 countries and focuses on electric vehicle charging technology.

“Professionals who are trained to maintain [internal combustion engine] buses make a fairly seamless transition to maintaining EV buses because they are already experts in the components of the bus,” added Mohr. “The technology is not starkly different. There are simply less components for the mechanic or technician to consider. Most technicians and mechanics are required to complete EV technical training on batteries and diagnostics, and they have adapted as technology and fueling have shifted in the past (i.e., gas, diesel, propane, natural gas, new emission technology). Overall, more flexibility of service network and simplicity of the EV bus components allows for more levels of skilled technicians to maintain EV buses.”

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Other commercial firms are creating training programs for electric vehicle maintenance technicians and mechanics. For instance, Motiv Power Systems in Foster City, California, builds electric chassis for Type A school bus builders Collins Bus and Trans Tech. Motiv also fabricates all-electric chassis for medium- duty commercial vehicles. It is also developing training programs for electric vehicle maintenance.

“We are rolling out accessible, inclusive training programs to train new and retrain current workers,” said Jim Castelaz, Motiv’s founder and chief technology officer. “There is definitely an increased demand for these types of jobs. We find the majority of technicians are excited to learn about electric buses, and they learn quickly. Many successfully apply the skills and intuition they have built servicing fossil- fuel vehicles into electric vehicles, processes for troubleshooting, and the use of many similar tools for replacing parts, for example. With electric vehicles, they will spend more time on diagnostics software and less time worrying about fluids, but it is a skill set that they recognize as useful as vehicles generally become more electric.”

Electric vehicles are a new technology, and it can be expected that many training programs will develop at community college workforce development programs as well as vocational tech training schools. This is likely to bring a new skill set to technicians who are ambitious and motivated to work on the latest technology that electric vehicles represent.

Mike Roeth, the executive director of the North American Council for Freight Efficiency, said he expects a new wave of technicians with EV skills to permeate the market in the near term, as more electric vehicles in many different settings become the norm.

“There will be a multitude of new technician skills and service tools to be developed and bought,” suggested Roeth. “Electrification and other new technologies are attracting some amazing talent to our industry. We see that in the engineers and others developing these vehicles, up and down the entire supply chain, and we expect this will attract more truck drivers and technicians to our industry. This is very exciting and real. We will need very geographic-specific support in the EV truck and bus deployment areas and then expand as the sales increase. This will be a combined effort by the manufacturers, dealers, fleets, trade schools, and more.”

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Eric Foellmer, the director of marketing at XL Fleet in Boston, Massachusetts, a leader in connected fleet electrification solutions for commercial and municipal fleets, is quite aware of how big the transition from gas and diesel power to electric propulsion will be.

“That’s why we’ve developed hybrid and plug-in hybrid solutions to help stakeholders across the fleet ecosystem, including mechanics and technicians, to drive this transition,” he said. “As the transportation industry slowly evolves to adapt to an all-electric future, these stakeholders have to realize that hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles will remain an integral part of this transformation, while helping to accelerate the industry’s shift towards full electrification.”

Workforce Development Programs Emerging?

Electric vehicle maintenance for school buses will likely follow the lead of many other fleet operators that already operate electric vehicles. Concurrently, heavy-duty trucks are increasingly electrified. Fleet operators of such vehicles will face the same maintenance challenges when they are widely adopted in the trucking industry. In addition, many municipal fleets already have electric vehicle fleets. But there are plenty more electric vehicles expected on the road. This is leading to workforce development programs sprouting up at community colleges to train workers to take jobs in the emergent electric vehicle industry.

Brett Pope, the director of electric vehicles for Volvo Trucks North America in Greensboro, North Carolina, said that training programs are already developing. He cited Volvo’s interaction with community colleges to establish workforce development programs to train mechanics.

“Training programs have already taken place and will continue to take place as the needs are identified throughout our dealer network,” said Pope. “As with any of our products, technicians need to be trained on our latest driveline offering. The electric driveline does require special training, so technicians understand how to properly and safely handle the components and learn how to maintain and repair the vehicle. For the Volvo VNR Electric model, technicians are being trained to understand the potential hazards of high-voltage systems. They are also being trained to understand the proper protocol for performing repair and maintenance on high-voltage systems. Certain technicians are being trained for determining when and how to place the vehicle in a safe state for certain activities. And technicians are being trained to understand the needs for personal protection equipment and specialty tools for certain functions.”

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Volvo Truck is already working with Rio Hondo College and San Bernardino Valley College (SBVC) in Southern California through the Volvo LIGHTS project. They developed comprehensive electric truck technician training programs to help train and support the next generation of maintenance technicians.

Pope explained that the Automotive Technology Program at Rio Hondo College enables students to earn degrees and certificates in a range of areas, including advanced engine performance, alternative fuels and advanced transportation technology, and electric vehicle and fuel cell technology. Through the Volvo LIGHTS project, Rio Hondo College designed a technician program specific to Volvo heavy-duty electric truck maintenance, helping to support workforce development in the region and utilizing Volvo Trucks’ first-of-its-kind augmented reality-based training program.

The SBVC Heavy/Medium Duty Truck Technology Department enables students to earn Heavy/Medium Duty Truck Technology Certificates or an associate degree by taking a range of courses, including truck electrical systems, electrical systems diagnosis and repair, engine repair, and more. SBVC is designing a certificate and associate degree-level training program specific to heavy-duty, battery-electric truck maintenance to promote the region’s workforce development.

“The transition from horse and buggy to automobile didn’t happen overnight,” said Motiv’s Castelaz. “There were certainly many naysayers along the way. Today’s rapid technology advancements, along with societal consensus about the negative impact of carbon-intensive industries, will drive EV adoption, even if policy lags. Those that get in front of these regulations stand to win by shaping their future.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the August 2021 issue of School Transportation News.

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