High-Tech Monitoring Systems Seek Niche in School Transportation

Paul Bishop
Posted on November 1, 2000

We’ve all seen the commercials. A couple is stranded in their car in the desert surrounded by a swarm of menacing rattlesnakes. They push a button, and a cheerful operator informs them that she has pinpointed their location and informed the local authorities of their predicament and is summoning a tow truck and, presumably, a herpetologist. The technology is glorious, but does it have any relevance if you’re not driving a luxury SUV or the Batmobile? Perhaps. Several technologies hold promise for the school bus industry, including the global positioning system (GPS), automated mobile telecommunications and the Internet. In fact, all have been in regular use from place to place. Until now, however, they have been daunting to use in combination. Many school bus fleet operators have equipped their vehicles with GPS receivers and some even with GPS-related mapping software. Although each of the component parts has been available off the shelf for some time, the main task has been figuring out what parts would be useful for each individual operation, how to integrate them and, perhaps more importantly, how to implement the parts and train dispatchers and drivers to use them.

Availability is key
Finally, turnkey systems are becoming available, with attendant training, to make these technologies viable for everyday fleet management. But key questions remain. Are they cost efficient? Are they dependable? Are they readily adaptable to school bus fleet management? Will they be accepted by dispatchers and drivers? And, in some cases, are they legal? Although some are in daily use, others are still in the test phase, and the answers remain elusive. Three systems currently in use or in final testing are Fleet Director by Teletrac, FleetASAP by @Road Inc. and the School Bus Monitoring product, SBM-1, by Thoreb North America.

Teletrac’s Fleet Director Fleet Director is typical of the offerings. It provides real-time tracking of bus locations via GPS transceivers and radio frequency modems. The data is gathered by Teletrac (headquartered in Vista, Calif.) and made available via the Internet. This allows dispatchers to locate one or all buses in real time. The advantages are obvious. A delayed bus can be contacted and parents can be informed of late arrivals. Bus routes can also be monitored for extraneous movements. Although some drivers may be disturbed by the prospect of big brother watching, the presence of a “panic button” for use in emergencies or when directions are needed is soothing compensation. Fleet Director is one of the older offerings, as evidenced by its MS-DOS operating system, although a Windows upgrade is in the wings. None of these systems is standing still. One user of Fleet Director is Detroit-based ATC/VanCom, which used the product almost from its beginning. ATC/VanCom is not a traditional route-based system, but rather a point-to-point system for transporting disabled persons. Because of the varying routes, even the most experienced drivers can get lost from time to time or have trouble finding exact addresses. The Fleet Director system virtually alleviates these difficulties and facilitates a 95 percent on-time record.

Scalability offered
Fleet Director utilizes two of the computer industry’s favorite buzz words: scalability and modularity. In human terms, scalability means that the size of the system can grow with a fleet or that a fleet can start with the system in a few vehicles and then expand. Modularity means that a fleet operator can buy only the features that the specific fleet needs (saving money in the initial outlay) and then add features as they become necessary. This also means that it is difficult to generalize the cost per vehicle of implementing a system. Fleet Director also uses a text-based communication system, reducing reliance on radio or cellular communications and, in theory, allowing for fewer dispatchers per number of vehicles controlled.

@Road’s FleetASAP
FleetASAP by @Road Inc. in Fremont, Calif., provides functions similar to those of Fleet Director, but with a heavier reliance on the Internet. Using the Net, a fleet manager can view one or all buses on a zoomable map, review reports of their stops and track their mileage. Using the reports generated, a manager can track employee, fuel and maintenance costs. Because the system is Internet based, no special software is required to use it, and familiarity with a Web browser is virtually the only special skill required. The Internet site is password protected to insure privacy. Currently, FleetASAP is in use both in public and private school bus fleets. Like Fleet Director, FleetASAP is customizable to each application. The system is more reliable than traditional radio or cellular dispatching because it is satellite-based. Although, in the words of George Korn, vice president of Safeway Training and Transportation in Kingston, N.H., (one of the users of FleetASAP), “It doesn’t eliminate the need for a traditional dispatcher in any way, shape or form.” What the system does give is the general picture of both where the buses are and where they’ve been. In some cases, Safeway has gotten complaints from anonymous sources that buses have been where they’re not supposed to be or doing something they’re not supposed to be doing, such as speeding. In such cases, the @Road system can give the users a printout of the vehicle’s progress, and verify either the driver’s or the complainer’s story. FleetASAP can also allow the dispatchers to know when a student gets off or on the bus because it tracks every stop the bus makes — including unauthorized deviations from the assigned route. While some drivers are nervous about the Big Brother aspect of the system, others are grateful for it. “Honest people tend to be very happy it’s there,” Korn says.

Thoreb’s SBM-1
The SBM-1 system is based on the Thoreb KomFram product that has been used by public transit organizations for more than 10 years in Europe. However, it is specifically tailored to school bus operations and more ambitious. “I don’t think anyone else is doing anything quite like what we are,” says Joe Craig, director of marketing at Thoreb North America in West Caldwell, N.J. “With our system, the parent can know when a child gets on the bus from their home computer. They can know when a bus is going to arrive so they or the child don’t have to spend 20 minutes waiting in the rain. “They can also follow the progress of the bus in real time, and with the correct password, they can even look inside the bus. We can give them almost real-time video and audio. The school board can look inside the bus in case of an emergency, and they can also hear inside the bus.” In addition to the GPS transceivers that the other systems use, the SBM-1 system uses video cameras inside the bus and passive RF (radio frequency) technology to track students entering and leaving the bus. While the other two systems are in commercial operation, the SBM-1 system has had only a trial run in the United States at a school district in West Paterson, N.J. While parental concerns were a primary consideration in installing the other two systems, according to school officials, there still had to be a human being to collect information and disseminate it to concerned parents. The SBM-1 system eliminates the need for such an employee.

Students ‘tagged’
The idea is simple. A small RF “tag” is attached to some article of a student’s clothing or a notebook or backpack. When the tag comes into contact with an RF field of the correct frequency, it emits a characteristic signature that is read by the RF detector and the student’s ID is logged on and off the bus. Using a password, parents can track the progress of their child’s bus and where the child embarked and debarked. That is, in theory. In practice, many school officials and bus drivers doubt the system’s ability to track children, simply because it can really only track the tag. Nothing is more common than a misplaced backpack or notebook. Even if the tags were sewn into a child’s underwear, well, in high school, misplaced underwear is not all that uncommon either. There are also privacy concerns, both about the video surveillance and the RF tracking. Thoreb representatives state that issues remain to be resolved in both areas. The more controversial issue is the RF tracking. Some have gone so far as to suggest that it might be a violation of constitutional rights. Under the proposed system, if the tracking option was approved by a school board, it would still be a matter of individual parental consent for a particular child to be enrolled in the program. Passive RF technology could not be used to track a child’s general whereabouts, since it does not emit a constant signal the way active RF tracking does. The tag can only be detected in close proximity to a sensing device. But some privacy advocates still worry.

Impressive integration
Nevertheless, the Thoreb system could provide the most complete integration of the available technology to date. It will consist of a Thoreb Vehicle Computer about the size of a shoe box, mounted in or near the driver area inside the bus, and its status will be observed on a dashboard-mounted driver display. In addition, a GPS antenna will be mounted on the roof of the bus and a GPS receiver module will be mounted inside the bus. A four line–by–40 character LCD display and small keypad would be mounted on the dashboard of the bus. A radio modem with an external antenna would also be used. Now that it’s actually here, the main question about all of this whiz-bang technology is whether its benefits will justify the cost when virtually every school bus running today is already equipped with either radio or cellular communications. The answer is, in some cases, yes. In small districts where dispatchers and drivers are in almost constant communication, this technology would probably be superfluous and not worth the cost. On the other hand, in districts where large numbers of buses must be tracked by a limited number of dispatchers, the cost of this equipment would allow for substantially reduced dispatching manpower. There are also obvious benefits in districts where buses are routed to distant locales, especially in inclement weather. In the case of the Thoreb system, giving parents the ability to directly monitor their child’s progress eliminates the need for paying an employee to pinpoint positions and estimate arrival times. In other words, time and experience will tell.

Paul Bishop is a freelance writer in Bakersfield, Calif.

Related Topics: GPS, routing, software systems

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