In the on-demand age, pupil transporters are not just adopting new technology to get students safely (and quickly) to and from school, but also to aid in providing effective, real-time route planning and management solutions.
As more parents seek immediate information about their child’s bus location and estimated times of arrival, school districts are looking to use tablet technology as a more efficient way to equip drivers with necessary safety and management tools.
“Now more than ever, school communities are expecting transparency from transportation departments,” says Kim Rentner, an industry engagement consultant with tablet solutions supplier Tyler Technologies. “Having the ability to see student ridership information, whether a student has gotten on or off at a stop, and then being able to deliver that information to a parent is so important for K-12 operations.”
Justin Malcolm, the director of product management for Seon, adds that complying with regulations, such as the requirement in some areas to have a tablet’s screen go dark while the bus is in motion, is a key operational component for school districts.
A few suppliers of the technology told School Bus Fleet that they have provided more detailed and accessible student tracking information and instant communication with administrators and parents, and are working to ensure compliance with state policies and regulations.
Using a cellular network connection, Seon’s Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) runs a variety of applications that enable school districts to collect student and fleet tracking data in one central location.
One of the most common applications for school bus fleets on the MDT is the Navigator, an in-cab navigation solution, Malcolm says.
“The Navigator gives turn-by-turn directions to drivers while also allowing the transportation director to make sure that drivers are following their proper routes,” he explains. “The app allows directors to give directions to substitute drivers, and even allows them to do last-minute reroutes without having to contact the bus driver via cellular phone or any other mechanism.”
To aid in operational evaluations, Seon’s MDT gives transportation directors the ability to track driver time and attendance as well as pre- and post- trip inspections.
While Seon’s MDT is currently offered as a fixed, mounted solution for school buses, Malcolm said the supplier is planning to release a second version of the tablet that is detachable and comes equipped with a camera in January 2020.
“Many of our users reported that they were initially worried about having the tablet go missing if it wasn’t fixed,” he says. “But now, with the detachable version, drivers will be able to take it off the mounted pedestal and walk around while conducting inspections and take photos of any maintenance issues.”
Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder, says that turn-by-turn navigation has been a beneficial tablet feature for districts that may be experiencing heightened driver shortage or an increased use of substitute drivers.
With the Wayfinder solution from Transfinder, school bus fleets can access turn-by-turn directions featuring voice guidance, route management tactics, fleet tracking, and the ability to offer compliance with state regulations.
“There’s a potential substitute driver on every bus now, so this navigation product that helps [drivers] has become a must-have product, not just a nice-to-have product for safety purposes.”
The solution also provides users with estimated arrival times, real-time feedback on driver behavior, and has the ability to analyze planned vs. actual, in terms of student ridership and routing.
Treker’s driver tablet also displays rider information, route details, upcoming stops, and traffic conditions, all in real time.
Drivers can share alerts with administrators and parents, in addition to having access to an emergency communication system in case of mechanical problems or other unplanned circumstances.
“At a recent conference, administrators discussed the need for reliable communication, especially in an emergency such as a school lockdown,” says Gina McDuffie, president of Treker. “Treker allows select administrators to communicate through the tablet. In the case of a lockdown, a driver would know to not proceed to school and to take the children to an alternative safe location.”
Treker’s GPS goes through the tablet and is updated every three seconds while the bus is on a trip, allowing the driver to indicate if they are skipping or switching stops, and provide instant notification of that to the in-house transportation team.
Driver behavior can also be monitored by using gyroscope and accelerator sensors in the tablet to track hard cornering, hard braking, and other unsafe driving behaviors.
Having the ability to share instant alerts with drivers, administrators, parents, and maintenance staff is critical for K-12 tablet solutions, says Tyler Technologies’ Rentner.
The Tyler Drive tablet solution is capable of communicating GPS information, specific student ridership data — including the student’s picture — to the driver as well as alerts for rerouting. A report of this information can also be communicated to the transportation department, including a log of a driver’s times for clocking in and out, and completion of pre- and post- trip inspections.
Weston Bartlett, the director of transportation for Melissa (Texas) Independent School District, says his district currently operates Tyler Drive units along with Tyler’s Traversa routing and student management solution on its entire fleet.
Texas is one of several states that requires tablets on school buses to have a motion-lock screen, meaning that the tablet screen must go dark while the bus is in motion, he adds.
“We have worked with Tyler over the last three years to improve the functionality of the motion-lock screen and it can now be customized to display important information to the driver such as next stop, stop time, number of students expected at the stop, and other information,” Bartlett says.
Additionally, Tyler recently partnered with First Student for a pilot program for customized in-vehicle tablet software, powered by the Tyler Drive unit. Rentner says that all First Student locations are expected to have the customized units installed on their entire fleets within the next three years.
The Zonar Mobile Ecosystem, enabled by the Samsung Tab Active2, is equipped with over 28 applications that include student tracking, navigation, and inspections.
Users can choose from three customizable data plans that best meet their mobile tablet needs, says Kevin Mest, the senior vice president of passenger services for Zonar.
Depending on the plan selected, districts may have access to several Zonar fleet management solutions, including Zonar’s Driver Coach, which is a driver behavior monitoring platform, Zonar Forms, a data messaging solution, and Zonar’s electronic vehicle inspection reporting (EVIR).
Shaun Adams, the systems specialist for Alpine School District in American Fork, Utah, said that his district currently operates 185 of its 402 buses with Zonar’s tablet solutions. Of those buses, 53 were equipped with Zonar’s Samsung Tab Active2 tablets in August.
Adams added that the district’s bus drivers, especially its substitute drivers, have given positive feedback on the use of the tablets, citing the benefit of having turn-by-turn directions and the text to dispatch application.
“We’re no stranger to driver shortage, so oftentimes we have our substitute drivers out on routes,” Adams explains. “With the tablets, they’re able to pull up bus stops and a point of interest on their route more efficiently. They can do their first run and have each one mapped out for them on navigation versus trying to look at a piece of paper.”