Albert Ross’ face lit up as he pulled around the corner and saw a Jouley electric school bus from Thomas Built Buses parked in front of the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) transportation facility.
Ross, a driver-trainer, had just been recounting how he and Director of Transportation Nathan Graf were so discouraged when the district wasn’t selected in the first round of the U.S Environmental Protection Agency Clean School Bus Program rebate. He noted that he and Graf share a goal of having a green fleet, one that is more environmentally friendly for students and the community.
That’s not to say SAISD isn’t doing its part to go green. The district is currently running about half of its fleet of over 200 buses on propane, which Ross said he is very happy about. Graf added, laughing, that Ross texted him about 78 times asking to drive one of the district’s new propane buses, which he was finally rewarded with about six months ago.
Graf also applied earlier this month for a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Renew America Schools program, which consists of $500 million available under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to invest in more efficient and energy-saving school buildings. Graf said a grant would result in nine electric school buses, 10 chargers and solar panels for an overhead parking shelter. Ross added he is guaranteed one of the first electric buses, should the district win.
Katelyn Saenz, director of operations, said the solar panels would generate enough energy to not only power the electric buses and the transportation facility, but SAISD would also be able to give back to the grid.
Awards are expected to be announced next month.
In the meantime, Ross loves his new propane bus, which he constantly washes. He even buys his own replacement parts, such as hub cabs, to ensure the bus stays in good condition.
“The propane has been excellent,” Ross commented on board the bus. “One of the big things you’ll see once we start [the ignition] … you’re going to be able to have a conversation with me while we’re driving.”
He said with diesel buses, he must yell to get the students’ attention. It’s not that he wants to be loud, but his riders can’t hear him otherwise. “The kids started to think we’re upset with them because they think they’re getting yelled at. They don’t know it’s because the engine is so loud,” he said. “Now, you can just use your natural voice and talk to them.”
The propane bus from IC Bus comes with Bendix Wingman automatic braking and collision mitigation technology as well as the new Bendix Wingman Fusion that adds radar and video, which he called a “game changer.”
As he drove around the district, Ross demonstrated how the Wingman Fusion technology works in real time. For instance, the minute he drifted toward one of the yellow dividing lines, an audible warning sounded. He also demonstrated how the school bus is able to detect vehicles ahead and slow down or come to a complete stop in an emergency situation. The bus can also read the posted speed limit and slow itself down if necessary.
Ross added there are two speakers on board the bus, so if the driver crosses the divider lines on the right side, the audible warning will sound out of the right speaker.
“On top of that, because you now have the camera system and the radar, now you have the ability to do things that cars can do. When you’re on a long field trip, on a long stretch of highway, we can set adaptive cruise control, and the bus will maintain the speed and maintain the distance,” he continued. “These aides make it a whole lot easier for the driver because before as a driver you would have to concentrate on the road, concentrate on the kids, and bounce between the two. But now while you’re driving, you have all these aides that actually can benefit you.”
He explained if there’s a situation in which the driver takes their eyes off the road to look at the students through the rearview mirror, and a vehicle suddenly pulls out in front of the bus, the bus will slam on the brakes.
In addition to the Fusion technology, the district has four interior cameras throughout the bus as well as one forward-facing camera on the dash, and outside two cameras near the stop arm, one camera on the passenger side, and one camera on the rear of the bus.
Graf explained the stop-arm cameras were approved by the school board in May 2018, and they were up and running by the start of the school year in August via a vendor program with REI that installs and maintains the systems for free in return for a share of ticket revenue from citations issued by police to motorist caught illegally passing the school buses. Graf added that the cameras have been a huge advantage for the district. If a motorist passes the school bus illegally, it results in a $300 fine, and the district gets a portion of it.
Because the district is the only one in Bexar County with Wi-Fi hotspots on its buses, Graf said his staff can remotely connect to the cameras and view what is happening on board the buses in real-time.
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Additionally, video footage can be pulled from the bus itself, and show more granular details, such as the speed the driver was driving at any given time. Driver trainers help pull video, Saenz said, adding that the district pulls about 20 videos a day either based on a complaint or random checks.
She noted that drivers enjoy having video cameras as it provides an additional layer of accountability, and it exonerates the driver if a parent complains about something that didn’t happen. Plus, when video footage shows a driver doing something positive, the district commends the driver. For instance, one randomly pulled video shows a driver teaching a student passenger how to tie their shoes.
Additionally, the district has student RFID cards from Zonar, which allow students to scan on and off the bus. A parent app from Transfinder allows parents to view the bus location in real-time.
Ross said that after being a driver at the district for five years, he can tell that Graf has it in his heart to serve the community. He said, 90 percent of the district’s student enrollment comes from disadvantaged families, and therefore the district doesn’t get the luxuries that other schools get. Instead, he said SAISD is focused on giving back, not just to the kids but to the drivers as well.
For example, during a visit this month, a team of monitors was seen packing books that were going to be donated to local children.
Ross said even though other districts want to dangle money in his face to get him to switch employers, he stays at SAISD because of the love shown to the students. Graf added that as a department he likes to treat his drivers, and they are always celebrating the various holidays.
For instance, he said they celebrated the Friday before the Super Bowl with a BBQ, provided heart-shaped cookies during Valentine’s Day, and are already planning their Fiesta Celebration in April, which is a citywide celebration that celebrates the founding of San Antonio.