As school districts across the country weigh whether to make the leap to newer technology like electric buses or to stick with the more familiar diesel vehicles, some of the consideration comes down to wrestling with change.
During a panel discussion of the big three school bus manufacturers at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services annual conference, Katie Stok, school bus segment marketing director for IC Bus, quoted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:
“The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.”
She cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s focus on electric school buses with its Clean School Bus Program and diesel compliance requirements kicking into gear as facets of the change, especially given how top-of-mind cleaner transportation technology has become to the younger generation.
“And I think we’re experiencing this daily,” Stok said. “But while it is scary, I think it is also equally if not more exciting for what is to come: new ways of doing things, new technology, and new opportunities to come into our industry to help us do our jobs better and to do what is most important – to get those students to school safely and on time on a daily basis.”
Tim Gordon, Blue Bird Corporation’s vice president of sales and marketing, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain issues, and inflation all played a role in slowing bus production and hurting quality.
Although production issues have eased up, Gordon noted that those coming federal diesel requirements on the horizon stand to have a serious impact.
“Looking toward the future, we keep feeling more and more strain on the market for diesel-powered buses,” he said. “This particular year we just finished, 62% of what Blue Bird built was non-diesel.” Gordon still expected Blue Bird to offer a diesel-powered product in 2027, but the price may be driven up by strings attached at the federal level.
“I think it’s going to really choke it down, and our government’s going to make us pay for a lot more warranty and other options,” Gordon said.
Vance Nofziger, sales operations manager with Thomas Built Buses, expects continued market growth during the next three to five years.
Looking back, in 2019, the market saw 35,000 Type C and D bus registrations “which is a strong market,” Nofziger said. In 2020, when COVID hit, registrations fell to 29,000. In 2021, that dropped to 25,600 registered units. The market in 2023 seems on target to hit between 30,000 and 31,000 by year’s end.
“So you can see how the market has rebounded as suppliers have gotten back into producing their products, giving us the components, and allowing us to produce our buses,” he said.
Nofziger forecast an increase to as many as 36,000 registrations by 2025.
The school bus manufacturers continue to struggle with chassis supply for Type A school buses, a shortage that has been protracted by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) strike and a more intense focus by chassis suppliers like GM and Ford on pickup trucks.
When it comes to electric vehicles, the big three tended to agree that the hurdles aren’t so much on the manufacturing side, but on the infrastructure side.
“We can all build a bus,” Nofziger said. “The challenge right now is with infrastructure. We need charging stations. There’s been a longer lead time on charging stations than anticipated.”
School districts really need to develop plans for infrastructure before placing orders for electric school buses.