Advances in technology are supplying school bus operators with more data to inform their decisions on which vehicles to buy and how best to run them on routes.
That’s one of Matt Scheuler’s assessments on the state of the industry. The president and general manager of Type A school bus manufacturer Collins Bus Corp. says that analytics are increasingly contributing to the pursuit of efficient pupil transportation.
Meanwhile, Scheuler sees renewed interest in alternative-fuel school buses, including the new crop of electric offerings as well as the more established propane and compressed natural gas (CNG) models.
Another noteworthy development: Collins, which is a division of Rev Group, turned heads last year with the unveiling of its new Low-Floor bus. The vehicle features a wide service door with an integrated ramp designed to boost accessibility for students who use wheelchairs.
In this interview, Scheuler provides insights on the school bus market and shares the responses of parents who have checked out the Low-Floor bus.
SBF: We’ve seen school bus sales rising for a few years now. What do you see as some of the key factors behind those rising sales?
Matt Scheuler: I think there’s a couple of factors that have been playing into the year-over-year increases. First of all, I think that our transportation leaders are actually buying what they truly need now, versus maybe historically just buying what they’ve always bought. And one of the factors that plays into that is the emerging technology.
Our industry keeps improving technology by supplying back operational information to those buyers, and it helps them with their buying decisions. Whether it’s, “Do I need to change a route over to a Type A bus versus a Type C bus for efficiency purposes?” or vice versa. And so I think a lot of it is data-driven. I think we’re taking deeper dives into the data and then making operational and purchasing decisions based on what we need versus what we want.
So, in a way, being more efficient in those decisions?
Yeah, I would say that’s exactly right. So it’s an efficiency thing, and it’s a more targeted way to buy. And they’re actually buying based on the facts, versus buying on just, “Historically, we’ve always purchased this type of a vehicle, so let’s just buy another one of those.”
How does the school bus market look for 2018?
Everything that I’ve been hearing and watching has just been a steady increase across the board, which we’ve been seeing for a number of years post-2008. More of my information comes from the associations that we’re a part of, and all of the associations are reporting a steady increase of around 3% to 4% overall [in school bus sales]. They’ve been pretty accurate in that over the last few years, so I don’t see that changing in the near future.
Collins unveiled the new Low-Floor Type A bus last year. What’s the latest in terms of production and orders?
It’s gotten a ton of attention over the last few months. … And we’ve been slowly progressing towards production, basically, the end of this winter. We’re looking at a February-March time frame to get that vehicle into the field.
Obviously, we feel like we’ve got something that’s very special. The demand out there is pretty significant. And as people see that product, it really changes their thought process on how we transport children into the future. Meaning equal access for all, using this vehicle as a standard ambulatory vehicle or using this vehicle with eight ambulatory seats and three wheelchair positions. And the fact that these children can load and unload themselves, potentially, is empowering for them. And it’s the right thing to do.
So demand is growing. We’re going to have demo vehicles in the field end of February, all over the country. Our dealers will be inventorying this vehicle as well, so the districts can get their hands [on them] and get their drivers behind the driver’s seat and test drive the vehicle. We’ll be displaying it at numerous trade shows this year, and we’re ready for any influx in demand in the school bus side of the business for that product.
Tell me about the responses you’ve heard from parents about the Low-Floor bus.
It’s all been very positive and amazing. When you talk to the parents of the children that are going to ride the vehicle, you can literally see the happiness in their face that their kid is now empowered to load themselves onto the bus with little to no assistance, on their own.
In fact, some of the feedback we got from the parents was [their children were] nervous about being put on a lift and loaded into a vehicle. Now, they’ve got a way to just get on the bus, the same as any other student, and put themselves into their seating position. And all of that to us means equal access. At the end of the day … I think the most important reason for this vehicle is it’s the right thing to do.
I’ve been in a number of meetings where we talk about, you know, analytics are changing and evolving, and camera systems are evolving. And all these different areas of the school bus industry are evolving, but what are we doing to evolve the actual vehicle side of the industry?
I couldn’t say anything during those meetings, because I knew we were developing this product and it was before we had announced it. But I wanted to stand up and say, “You know, we’re doing something at Collins to change the vehicles themselves.” And what we’ve got here is something that … changes the way we’ve transported students, basically in the history of the school bus transportation industry.
Looking at school buses in general, are you seeing any trends in the market?
In general, I believe there is a trend starting to emerge, and it’s around the electrification of vehicles. You’ve seen a number of [electric-powered] vehicles introduced over the last year in our industry. I think that’s becoming more and more trendy as the automotive industry [advances] with electric vehicles. You know, the Teslas of the world, etc.
The other thing that I think is a continuation of a trend: The analytics are just continuing to evolve in the industry. Like I said in the prior question, it’s allowing those that are involved in decision-making processes within the transportation industry to make sound decisions — whether it’s routing of the buses, or the ridership of the buses, or the vehicle diagnostics of the buses.
The analytics are going to be very helpful as they improve and as the industry is able to collectively put those together and not have isolated islands of information out there.
You mentioned electric buses. For Type A school buses specifically, what are you seeing out there as far as the interest in alternative fuels?
On the alternative fuel side, it’s kind of ebbed and flowed for a number of years now. We came into the Type A alternative fuels back in about 2009/2010 when we rolled out our propane vehicle. And it’s really progressed over time, to a degree. But then as traditional fuel prices declined — gasoline or diesel —alternative fuel usage kind of leveled back out.
So we came out of the blocks pretty strong, and we saw alternative fuels really pick up steam in the 2010 to 2013 range. It slowed down a little bit, just because fuel prices started to come back off of those high $4 retail prices that we were paying out there at the pump.
But I would say, today, we’re starting to see another slight pickup in alternative fuels. Some of that probably equates to conventional school buses offering propane vehicles as well. So the fleets can be consistent in fuel types within their operation centers. When you can fuel all vehicles on propane or all vehicles on CNG, it makes sense that that whole market’s going to start to grow. I think we’re starting to see that now that all the manufacturers, or most of the manufacturers, have a propane offering across all their products.
Analytics are helping “to make sound decisions — whether it’s routing of the buses, or the ridership of the buses, or the vehicle diagnostics of the buses.”
Any other new developments at Collins that you would want to talk about?
Obviously, we have a lot of different things going on at Collins. One of the things that we’re doing now is we’re starting to build commercial buses here again. Our Low-Floor school bus is also configurable as a Low-Floor commercial bus, which is exciting because that market is established, and we see it as an opportunity to really grow, in terms of volume, in the bus industry.
We do have a new vehicle coming here in the near future, but I just can’t talk about it yet. So, unfortunately, that’s kind of a top secret one.
Is it something you’re looking at introducing this year or later?
It’s probably going to be introduced in 2018. There’s a chance that we could have it out by NAPT [the National Association for Pupil Transportation trade show] this coming fall.
One other thing I wanted to ask about was this new agreement with Rev Group and Daimler AG on the North American sales of Setra motorcoaches. Does it have the potential to expand into other areas?
It’s a little bit of a general statement, but I think what you can expect from our Rev Group — and all of the divisions, frankly, that are under that umbrella — is that we’re all geared to continuously evolve to meet both the customer needs, but to also fill out our specialty vehicle portfolio. And we’re going to do that through both traditional, new product-type stuff at our facilities, as well as creative ways like strategic partnerships. And so I don’t see us ever letting up as far as adapting to what works for us as a large specialty vehicle manufacturer, in total.
I know that’s a little bit of a broad answer, but that’s really who we are. We’re filling out our portfolio via strategic partnerships and new product development at our plants and acquisitions, and it’s coming together really nicely.