Pupil transportation providers are constantly thinking outside the box, offering new ways to transport children to and from school. In many districts, students have gone from traveling to school in a big yellow bus, to sitting in the backseat of a sedan through school-provided transportation.
School Bus Fleet talked to people in the industry – from transportation contractors to those who sit behind the wheel of the school bus – to hear what they believe pupil transportation will look like in the next five years and beyond. Here are their responses:
Lots of companies are re-envisioning pupil transportation. What do you think pupil transportation will look like five years from now?
Antonio Civitella, President, Owner, and CEO, TransFinder: In a few words, significantly more technology. When you look at how many things our company is solving right now, there might be some additional new [items to the list of solutions we offer], especially electric cars, and electric vehicles, and charging stations. So our system is going to be able to be smart about when we're designing efficient routes. We may need to include where to go charge afterwards. So those are things that are going to be important to incorporate in our in our algorithms. We already overlay all that data, but I feel that a client's going to want to go beyond that.
There’s a huge demand now that parents want to see [pupil transportation] data. I think in five more years, school districts that don’t want to share their data will be an exception. Access to data in other industries is already instant. I know from my own son. He is able to do his homework really anywhere: on a tablet and even on his phone. He literally has instant access to data. And so in five years now, this is where innovation [in pupil transportation] has to be. I think this industry is finally going to have the innovation that we've been waiting on for years.
Mitch Bowling, CEO, EverDriven: We believe that it will be a continued growing space, with more and more alternative transportation five years from now than today, for a couple of reasons. We believe there'll be a continual shortage of buses and bus drivers. Also, there's school choice, where the alternative transportation is more efficient. For school choice, those trips can be sometimes long mileage, and it's just more efficient to do that in a small vehicle, whether it be a sedan or SUV, a van, as opposed to a bus. We have great relationships with our school districts where we help them transport students more efficiently and allow them to use their buses in a more efficient way. And then they use us for special needs-type trips, where it works out better for just really anyone involved.
Jeff Nielsen, Vice President of School Transportation, Hayden AI: The number one priority should be to make pupil transportation as safe as possible. To start, five years from now, we would like to see all states in the country enable school districts to deploy automated school bus stop arm technology. Currently, this critical safety technology is only enabled in 12 states. Ten states have legislation pending to authorize this technology. The NTSB recommended all states pass this legislation so that school districts can deploy this technology following a deadly crash in 2018 where three children were killed by a driver failing to stop for a stopped school bus that had its stop arm deployed, as is the law in every single U.S. state.
We would also like to see school districts have access to real-time safety data, such as where near-misses and school bus stop-arm violations occur. The Hayden AI platform captures this data in real-time (thanks to an edge processor installed on the bus itself) and lets cities and school districts analyze this data on our data portal.
Additionally, we would like to see school districts prioritize privacy when deploying this technology. Many providers of school bus stop-arm enforcement technology record footage of traffic to detect violations after the footage is uploaded to the cloud, potentially opening up this data to security risks. The Hayden AI platform uses computer vision and edge processing to identify violations of school bus stop arms in real time, and only creates evidence packages of potential violations, limiting the amount of personally identifiable information that is captured and stored.
Chad Carpenter, Director of Pupil Transportation, Alabama: It’s really hard to predict. Obviously, the driver shortage has affected the way we do pupil transportation. But with that said, structurally, the school bus is built to set stringent specifications. It is a large vehicle and in accidents, size does matter. It's high off of the ground so it’s safer. And there's nothing we can put kids on that is like that, no matter what we need for transportation. The bus is safest. On top of that, you have drivers who've gone through stringent testing, background checks, and [who] are subject to drug tests and alcohol tests. The bottom line is no matter what we do reinvent the wheel, kids are safest on the school bus. We certify drivers. There's no other way to slice and dice it. So, in the future I think we'll find as we try these alternative [modes of transportation], they're going serve a purpose but on a small scale, I think, comparatively.
Skyler Sanford, bus driver, Des Moines Public Schools, Iowa: I think there's going to be an increase in younger and younger drivers. Also, I think that as you get older, you kind of just expect to have an easy job, and especially school bus driving, that's just not the case anymore. And so I think that over the next five years, we'll have a big influx of younger drivers. That's my hope. And I really hope that that we kind of target that age range as well, just because then you get some longevity as well, people that will hopefully come and stay for a while.
What pain points are you trying to address through innovation?
Civitella: The driver shortage. It really is the number one problem. Yes, fuel cost is definitely there. And our clients know how to leverage our technology to be as fuel efficient as possible. But the driver shortage is really insane. But our tablet solutions that are meant for drivers [are a selling point to potential drivers]. Our clients are calling us saying, ‘We want to present ourselves as an innovative school district. We want to buy your tablets.’ Because it's a selling point. It's attractive. Instead of driving around with pieces of paper that you have to flip through, [especially if you’re subbing for another driver], while you’re driving 40 to 50 kids, you have the technology. So [districts are] asking for technology to help recruit drivers, and also to be more safe. The technology is safer. Initially, [our concern was that] drivers were going to think we're tracking them. Now the drivers feel like, ‘you got my back. If something happens, [like a mailbox is run over by somebody], you know exactly where I was at.’
Bowling: With driver shortages for school districts, we want to be an alternative for them to give them more tools in their tool bag, so to speak. We want to be there for school choice; that's becoming more and more commonplace. Also, unfortunately, there's a continuing increase in special needs children, especially in the homeless, and foster care space. So that need continues to grow. And alternative transportation is very important. We try to work with states on their regulation if there's something that makes it difficult or harder than they would want it to be [to provide alternative modes of transportation]. We work with school districts, because to some degree, they are in a difficult spot as well, where they have a need and can't act on that need. We have a great relationship with school districts, working with them to help solve those problems.
Nielsen: The frequency of school bus stop-arm violations is enormous — a recent NASDPTS survey estimates that nearly 42 million of these violations occurred last school year — yet community awareness of this incredibly dangerous problem is low. Capturing data and video highlights the pervasiveness of this problem, helping to change driver behavior and school bus route design, and even infrastructure changes that can make crossing the street safer for children.
Another pain point we are solving through innovation is the inability of school districts and police departments to scale enforcement of school bus stop arm violations significantly enough to meaningfully impact driver behavior. If enforcement is ad hoc, it doesn’t achieve its purpose: to stop drivers from illegally passing school buses, putting children’s lives in danger. Studies have shown that 99% of drivers who receive one ticker do not receive another, indicating that enforcement beneficially impacts driver behavior and reduces the risk to children.
Carpenter: Well, technology has come such a long way just in the last five years. It's like hyper speed in the school bus world, certainly. Loading and unloading is the most dangerous part of a bus ride for students. Any innovation that makes that safer, whether it be different types of lighting, mirrors, detection devices — all of those things should be explored to see if they do make it safer. Because it doesn't happen often, but generally, when a kid is injured during the loading process, they're seriously injured or killed. Anything we can do to make that even safer would be good.
Sanford: I’m not addressing anything personally. But I will tell you that [the school district] is trying to solve the problem of people leaving. This year, for example, they offered a retention bonus. And they gave every employee $1,250 to stay the whole year. If you if you leave, you have to pay it back. I think that's definitely a step in the right direction. I can name 10 people who were going to leave but stayed specifically for that. One of our biggest problems is not being able to keep people. We're actually hiring people at a decent rate. I see new people in the training room all the time. But the problem is we're losing people that we have. I think trying to keep people is a big, a big pain point that we need to continue addressing.
How has the supply chain crisis affected your operations?
Civitella: It hasn’t affected it a whole lot. Some of our GPS vendors did have some issues. But it really is not bad.
Bowling: It hasn’t really affected our operation. Where it’s really affected us is that we’ve been able to help more school districts when they found the challenges with the supply chain; we’re a great alternative for them. If they're short on school buses or drivers, we are a great alternative to help them solve those busing needs.
Nielsen: Our supply chain team has focused on building both a risk-averse and a risk-aware process to avoid running low on inventory. Our supply chain manager monitors an extensive list of components from multiple distributors on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to have a complete understanding of availability of parts for the multiple solutions Hayden AI has. We have built partnerships for key critical components that allow us to have optimal sales and inventory support. We stock inventory with a lead time of at least several months to avoid installation schedule delays, and to date we have not delayed installation of a single piece of equipment due to lack of inventory.
Carpenter: It really hasn’t affected us on the state level in Alabama, but it has the local districts because they order the buses. It’s affected them just like it has everyone else.
Sanford: I can tell you, from a mechanical point of view, I know [the district has] had issues trying to get certain parts. We've had certain buses that don't necessarily have serious things wrong with them, but they can't drive because there's a part that they're not able to get. That affects us a little bit. However, with the driver shortage, we do have plenty of unused buses that thankfully we're able to use instead. But getting parts is difficult.
What state or local regulatory issues are on your radar?
Civitella: Electric vehicles. It’s really the regulations. [We also have to pay attention to] regulations about screens. There are a lot of rules about vehicles [in motion.] In some cases, as the vehicle starts moving, [regulators] want the screens to go dark. We're going to make that an option for our devices.
Bowling: So many districts continue to look to alternative transportation, sometimes changing local legislation. For example, in Maryland and Georgia, folks changed their regulations to make it possible for alternative transportation to be an option for them. In one of those states, the regulation was likely written at a time before alternative transportation was needed. It specifically said [only] school buses [can transport students]. They saw that need and made a change and are now being able to use alternative transportation. We think that will continue across the country. We're in 28 states now. But two years ago, we were in 19 states. So that gives you a somewhat of a sense of how alternative transportation needs are growing.
In Illinois, Bill 1688 effectively changes existing regulation that says [in order for pupil transportation providers] to drive a small-capacity vehicle, like sedan and SUV, or minivan, the driver has to pass a school bus test. I'm sure that was written with good intentions at a time where alternative transportation was either not needed or less than needed at the time. Think of it as right-sizing regulation. We also want to remember while we're right-sizing regulation, safety standards are always at the forefront of that. Those two things can live in unison: there can be safety for students and alternative transportation as well as busing while having regulations that meet the appropriate needs of the vehicle being driven.
Nielsen: Only 12 states allow school districts to deploy automated school bus stop-arm enforcement technology, with 10 others actively legislating enforcement. As noted above, the NTSB recommended that all states pass this legislation so that school districts can deploy this technology following a deadly crash in 2018 where three children were killed by a driver failing to stop for a stopped school bus that had its stop arm deployed, as is the law in every single U.S. state. We are hopeful more states will pass legislation enabling school districts to deploy this life-saving technology.
Privacy issues are also on our radar. Our system has been built with a privacy by design approach that limits the data we capture and pre-processes events on the bus, reducing the amount of information transferred to our portal and limiting opportunities for data to be compromised or breached.
Lastly, we’re also tracking legislation in Congress like S.786 - the Stop for School Buses Act - that among other things would provide additional resources to educate the public about the problem of illegal stop-arm running.
Carpenter: The driver physical fitness test. We've looked at that in Alabama. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that, so we've looked into some of that. But none of that has come to fruition at this time.
How have you been affected by the slower lead times in school bus manufacturing?
Civitella: Not too much. I think it's mainly the drivers have been affected. Our products are more popular now than ever because they see a way to become more efficient.
Nielsen: Because our platform can serve multiple different use cases — such as Automated Bus Lane Enforcement, which we are currently conducting with New York City’s MTA — our company has not been majorly affected by slower lead times in school bus manufacturing. Additionally, our technology can be deployed on all makes and models of school buses, not just new ones.
Carpenter: We’ve certainly seen delays to acquire new buses.
[When asked whether districts are holding onto buses longer:] In Alabama, we're fortunate we have what's called a fleet-renewal program. Most of our school systems roll their route buses off every 10 years because that's what our fleet renewal program is based on. So it has affected the fact that some of them have had to order a little earlier than they usually anticipate because of the supply chain, but most of our school systems still keep that same rotation and are able to roll out new buses after 10 years.
What impact has the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law had on your operation so far?
Civitella: None yet. I'm sure it will. I'm sure that the infrastructure is going to be affected, especially when we're talking about the roads. There's going to be roads that are under construction. This is where our product is going to be an obvious helper. It's a routing system. It’s going to reroute buses based on construction. Our clients going to leverage our product and make sure [the buses are] rerouted in a way that it's still efficient.
Bowling: I think this is more about just reinforcing what EverDriven does every day: fulfilling transportation needs primarily for special-needs students. I think it just bolsters the need for that, and what we're able to do in working with school districts to help them get more kiddos to school in a more efficient way.
Nielsen: For our automated bus lane and bus stop-arm enforcement platform, the BIL has unlocked at least $66 billion in federal funding for transit agencies to deploy this technology. That said, the BIL has not had a major impact on our automated school bus stop-arm enforcement platform so far.
Carpenter: The biggest impact it's had is really electrification in school buses. The federal government is handing out hundreds of millions, billions of dollars for this, and school systems are certainly looking at taking advantage of it. Subsequently, dealers are because they see the money out there. I think that's the biggest impact it’s had is that it has certainly expedited the possibility of fleets becoming fully electrified or even partially.