School Bus Operators Set Eyes on Advanced Technology

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Typically, school bus fleets operated by the largest contractors come equipped with technology features required by law, along with some added bells and whistles. While advanced features are slowly coming on board, four of the largest operators are prepping customers for the future now.

A “spot check” turned up technology development across the board. Investment is driven by market demand and corporate research and development. The following is a look at the technology activities at a handful of bus operators who responded to our inquiries.

Safety and Logistics at Laidlaw

As the largest school bus operator in the U.S., Laidlaw Education Services operates and maintains nearly 40,000 school buses through 1,000 contracts. Today, buses feature a variety of technology, including two-way radios, crossing control arms and the Child Check-Mate Safety System. The company also offers proprietary software for vehicle inspections, maintenance records and compliance.

Looking forward, buses may include technologies that are now under review. While Laidlaw wouldn’t specify the exact technologies in piloting stages, the company mentioned that customers have a great interest in GPS.

“They certainly want vehicle locator information, but when you peel back the onion, we find they often do not appreciate all the functionality this technology offers, nor do they appreciate all the support requirements and process change and training requirements,” said Jim Folkes, vice president of business development.

Laidlaw’s technology development also goes into continuous improvement of existing products. The company offers computerized routing and maintains its own technologies to help school districts with boundary planning, efficiency studies, state reporting, audits and analysis. Laidlaw’s dedicated routing group works directly with school representatives to plan and implement logistics and planning solutions.

“We seek to understand what customers need. We see many competing views and approaches, and technologies are still formulating. Technology suppliers are providing a great service in demonstrating their capabilities and feature sets. Users don’t know the possibilities until they see it,” said Folkes.

He added: “The value we bring is perspective for a school district. We help them understand what’s ‘value add’ and what’s ‘nice to have’ in advanced technologies. We know it’s not just buying components. There are processes that need to be implemented around the technology tools as well as user assessment and training.”

(Editor’s note: Bob Pudlewski, Laidlaw’s vice president of Fleet Operations, will present a workshop on “Future Technologies in Pupil Transportation” at the STN EXPO in Reno, Nevada this month.)

Technology at First Student

First Student, the second largest school bus operator, continues its technology advancements through suppliers and technology partners. With a fleet of more than 15,000 school buses, the company has been able to experiment with devices in the field.

“We want to be the leader in providing new technology to customers,” said Carey Paster, president and chief executive officer, First Student. Paster added the company is willing to invest in new technology and assume risk. Most often, he says, it has a return on investment and benefits for the customer.

Without great detail due to competitive advantage, Paster said the company is investigating GPS and wireless technologies. It is also investing in computer diagnostic equipment to measure vehicle productivity. In partnership with Zonar, First Student already has field-tested and offered customers devices that electronically monitor and record vehicle systems for pre- and post-trip inspections. The system includes a handheld device that reads results, thus eliminating paper reports.

With other technologies, First Student is attempting to gain full fuel efficiencies without adding bi-products to fuel. The company has partnered with several school districts and clean air organizations to retrofit school buses with a number of fuel-saving systems.

On the administrative side, the company offers internal labor tracking systems to manage employees. First Student also aims to offer routing technologies to help school districts plan and track daily runs.

“Our customers rely on us to share technology, and we do that. We’re beta-testing different products. We just need to find ways to drive out cost, in respect to pricing,” said Paster.

Durham School Services at Technology Crossroads

Durham School Services, the country’s third largest operator, currently promotes standard technology options, such as two-way radios and stop arms. However, the company is trying to find a technology mix that fits its wide customer base.

“We’re cautious with technology. There’s a lot of diversity with technology around the country. School districts may not know what they want, but they are interested in providing more information to parents for security,” said Tom McBride, senior vice president or corporate cervices.

Much of Durham’s technology research is a response to safety concerns. The company indicates GPS is a top interest among customers, as well as on-board digital cameras to address “step-on” violations.

“They become aware of technology after an unpleasant incident. Then they want information to address security and monitor data. So we’re investing in more research to find out what customers really want,” said McBride.

Through retrofit and emissions programs, Durham has been keeping up with new engine and fuel monitoring technologies. And the company has been investigating automated routing software for current and future use.

Student Transportation of America (STA) Looks To Trends

STA, the fifth largest operator in the U.S. with 3,300 buses, now offers a range of low-tech options but has been entering into the higher end. Currently it offers on-board cameras, and it’s slowly bringing customers into other options, such as GPS and routing software.

“School districts see a need to just look at these technologies first,” said Keith Engelbert, STA’s sales and marketing director.

Engelbert added that much of the company’s technology focus has been on fuel efficiency and conservation, especially in the California market. In addition to retrofit technologies for fuel efficiencies, STA is experimenting with compressed natural gas technologies. “School districts see the need to look at this,” he said.

Outside Help for School Bus Operators

Contractors have an extended technology arm in the National School Transportation Association.

“Members large and small are investing in GPS, ULS fuel and vehicles, digital cameras and 3-point seat belts,” said NSTA President John Corr.

Through its own technology policy committee, the trade group provides regular updates on research, new product development, new services, innovations and breakthroughs on equipment and operations. It also provides best practices guides.

The current focus of the committee is emission control technology, child restraint devices, the multifunction school activity school bus (MFSAB), and wireless communications. With this research, the group provides school transportation professionals with the tools and resources they need to make school buses safe, affordable and efficient.

Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.