The other thing I think everybody’s seeing is that alternative fuels have a stronger presence in the school bus market than they’ve ever had. Some of these technologies long term are very promising, but I think it’s still important at this time to keep it in perspective. They still just represent 1% of all the C and D school buses on the road today. So the majority, 99%, are diesel products. Diesel is the backbone of our industry, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
McKinney says that parents are now “thinking about safety in terms of how we manage a student from the time they get picked up in the morning until they get delivered home.”
Are there any big differences in how customers are spec’ing school buses now compared to, say, five years ago?
I think so. We’ve seen a couple things. With the budget constraints and what that entails, people become more efficient. I think that and other things have driven the increase of the Type C bus in relation to the Type D. In 2008, 18% of school buses built were the transit-style, Type D buses. Today, that’s only 13%, and it continues to decline. I think that’s a result of people going to a Type C bus for more commonality in their fleet. We look at that chassis, specifically our Type C chassis, how robust that is, and we talk about longer life cycles — I think that’s all a natural outcome of the industry demands and pressures.
We’ve also seen a shift toward more automotive-like features in our buses. We’ve seen more states embracing seat belts. While we have long been neutral on seat belts — we can build buses with them or without them — in recent years it just seems that more and more districts have adopted them. For those customers with IC Bus, I feel really fortunate that our operational team and engineering team had the foresight to come up with the BTI seats, which includes the ability to retrofit an existing bus to a seat belt application only by replacing the seat back as opposed to replacing the whole seat. So it certainly makes that an easier changeover — and certainly more cost effective and more efficient.
We’ve seen a bigger focus on driver comfort, too. We have done a lot of work on driver ergonomics and driver comfort. Today we are seeing customers taking another step in that by asking for better driver seats, foregoing the static seats for mechanical suspension seats — really thinking about that driver compartment, the amount of time someone’s there, what that means in terms of fatigue, and ultimately what that means in terms of safety for the children and the driver.
That could also be related to the issue of driver shortage, because if drivers aren’t comfortable, districts are going to have a harder time retaining them.
Exactly. The other thing we’re seeing is a lot more customers embracing LED lighting packages. With LED lights, customers see lower maintenance costs and decreased stop reaction time for buses making stops. We’ve seen some of our largest customers introduce all-LED lights into their fleets this year. That’s a relatively new change.
The other thing that we continue to see is school bus customers integrating new aftermarket technologies on their buses, from cameras to GPS-enabled tracking systems. There’s a number of new technologies that weren’t here five years ago, and I really think it’s where the industry has moved and is moving.
I’ve been in the industry for a while. Initially we used to always think about safety in terms of the product, and I don’t want to minimize that. The way the school bus is structured, the rollover technology and testing, the side intrusion — all of that is incredibly important. But I think we’ve done that so well that now it’s a given. Parents, communities and, as a result, school boards and districts are thinking about safety in terms of how we manage a student from the time they get picked up in the morning until they get delivered home. Where are they in that route, and what happens on the bus?
So there are all these technologies about when a student gets on the bus and when they get off and how to track that. There are video cameras inside the bus and on the exterior of the bus to be comfortable about the environment that our kids are being transported in. I think we’re going to continue to see that evolve.