If you experienced the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) trade show in November — or if you read our coverage of it — you may have come away with the sense that change is afoot in the school bus industry.
The biggest revelation at NAPT was that the three major large school bus manufacturers — Blue Bird, IC Bus, and Thomas Built — all unveiled new electric school buses.
While the extent that these and other electric models will penetrate the market remains to be seen, the fact that the “Big 3” are adding electricity to their powertrain offerings is significant. From a competitive standpoint, it positions them to go head to head with newer players in the market that are focusing on electric school buses. That includes Canadian company Lion Bus, which this year rebranded itself as the Lion Electric Co. (although it is still offering a diesel model as well as its electric eLion).
Speaking of newer players, another shift in the industry is the increasing number of OEMs. This is evidenced in the Bus & Chassis Manufacturers section of our Fact Book. This year, the new entry is Titan Bus, an Ohio-based Type A school bus manufacturer that combines the experience of several industry veterans.
Another relative newcomer is GreenPower Motor Co., located in Canada as well as California, which is one of the aforementioned manufacturers that is focusing on electric buses.
To confirm my point about the growing field of OEMs, consider this contrast: Our 2018 Fact Book listings include 10 school bus body manufacturers. Ten years ago, only six of those companies were in the market (see our 2008 Fact Book if you have a copy). That’s a big increase in competition for an industry that sells around 40,000 school buses a year.
That number brings me to my next point: Another trend in the market is the ongoing rise in sales. As we report on pg. 34, school bus sales in the U.S. and Canada have grown for six years in a row. The 2017 total, 44,389 school buses sold, was up 8.5% from 2016.
The 2017 total also surpassed the projection that we printed in this space a year ago, which was an estimated 42,100 units to be sold in 2017.
This year’s tally of 44,389 school buses is the highest mark for the industry in more than 10 years. The previous peak was in 2006, when pre-buying ahead of EPA engine emissions standards contributed to a lofty sales total of 47,614 school buses.
The growth of the past six years followed five years of falling sales, bottoming out at 29,060 units in 2011 after several years of severe economic recession.
The market has clearly rebounded and, quite remarkably, has even drawn close to the 2006 peak.
Beyond the soaring sales, we’re also seeing a surge of new technology and other innovations being introduced into the school bus market. That was another key takeaway from the NAPT show.
As one example of innovation, Collins exhibited its new Low-Floor bus, which enables students in wheelchairs to bring themselves aboard by way of a ramp.
As for technological developments, parent notification apps, school bus Wi-Fi, and mobile data terminals (e.g., driver tablets) are a few that are making inroads into the market. We’ll be showcasing new technology in our January issue. Stay tuned.