A decade after the iPhone’s introduction, society is more mobile than ever. Innovation has delivered internet communication through devices and applications that have become essential to people’s daily lives.
The school bus industry has developed its own niche of mobile technologies, ranging from onboard Wi-Fi to specialized devices and applications. Bus operators, school districts, manufacturers and technology providers are piecing together connected buses for better visibility and transparency on all aspects of transportation.
“Instant information is no longer a wishful thought; it’s an expectation,” said Ted Thien, vice president and general manager for Tyler Technologies’ transportation group. “The new norm is receiving text messages with bus ETAs, traffic delays, emergencies, snow day announcements, or even a notification that their child got on the wrong bus or got off at the wrong stop.”
Swift innovation, Slower Adaptation
Mobile applications have been widely adapted for real-time school bus monitoring, route efficiency, fleet efficiency, and driver-passenger safety. Connectivity allows real-time access to these applications, as well as video and vehicle data.
“Applications provide vital information for making better decisions, especially during emergencies. They are driving the need for higher-bandwidth, lower cost Internet connectivity on the bus,” said Lori Jetha, marketing communications manager at Seon Design.
Onboard Wi-Fi is still getting off the ground. In a STN survey commissioned by school bus Wi-Fi provider Kajeet last year of more than 300 readers, only 7 percent indicated that they currently provide Wi-Fi access to students on the buses. About 18 percent of the participants said they were considering onboard Wi-Fi by the end of next year, and 19 percent said they were considering the technology two years or more down the road.
The respondents indicated that they believe onboard Wi-Fi, essentially a mobile classroom, would decrease bad behavior, retain drivers and give students the opportunity to complete homework while riding the bus. A lesser number of respondents indicated that school buses could be parked to provide an Internet hotspots to less fortunate communities.
Skeptics indicated that the biggest challenges for onboard Wi-Fi are lack of budget (50 percent) and the assumption that it would be used for entertainment over educational value (20 percent).
That’s not the case for Fresno Unified Schools in California, which has installed Wi-Fi on all 99 of the district-owned buses. All web traffic is filtered to ensure students have an educational and safe online experience.
“Fresno Unified students ride our school buses more than 5 million times during the course of a school year, and we want to make sure they are able to study and stay on top of their school work and on track to graduate,” said Fresno Unified Schools Superintendent Michael Hanson. “The bus ride home will never be the same for our students. They can consider a Fresno Unified bus ride a mobile study hall.”
Tablets Take Front Seat
While some school buses still use two-way radios and cell phones to communicate their location and road conditions with dispatch, tablet based solutions and Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) will move buses into more mature mobility this year.
“It’s one thing to receive a fault code or have other sensors or cameras on a bus, but it’s another to be able to act on the information through streamlined and accurate communication between drivers and dispatch. Tablets are a huge benefit to get real time information you can use to make decisions,” said H. Kevin Mest, senior vice president of passenger service at Zonar Systems.
Technology providers have introduced tablets for better communication, as well as to focus an eye on driver and vehicle performance, fuel consumption and route efficiencies. At the NSTA Mid-Winter Meeting last month, Mest said Zonar’s second-generation Connect ELD-ready tablet will be available for school bus customers in the second quarter. Last summer, Tyler Technologies launched Tyler Drive, a semi-rugged tablet to mount on school bus consoles that provide cloud-based routing, instant updates, turn-by-turn directions, student identification, and driver timekeeping.
“Tablet hardware doesn’t need to change all the time, the way some cell phone companies expect you to buy a whole new piece of hardware every year. In our industry, it’s not the hardware, but the software, that will to continue to develop and improve, and those improvements can be pushed to the tablets through an over-the-air update,” Thien said.
Applications Grow in Numbers
Apps are available for smart devices through the iTunes app store and Google Play for Android. School bus manufacturers, such as IC, also recognize the need for their own marketplace where customers can find and download apps to fit their needs.
“Technology is great, but it can be overwhelming. Many apps are entrepreneurial. We want to help customers find economic solutions, right down to the smallest school bus customers who need a choice,” said Trish Reed, vice president and general manager of IC Bus.
The company demonstrated a tablet-based app at the NAPT Summit in November that would compete with Zonar and Tyler for the school bus inspection reporting market.
Student and school-bus tracking apps continue to receive attention from parents, who are sharing their experiences through social media and generating demand for technology providers.
“Parents are seeing our Here Comes the Bus app, and they are asking districts for it. The app eliminates calls to the school, helps with communication, and keeps parents in the know that kids are okay,” said Thomas Polan, senior vice president of technology at Synovia Solutions.
Since its launch, Here Comes the Bus has been adopted by over 125 school districts and is used by over 140,000 parents and students in the U.S. Through GPS, the app translates data through customizable maps that are compatible with tablets, smartphones and computers. Push notifications let parents and students know when the bus is close, so they can come to the curb at the right moment when the bus arrives.
Zonar said it will continue to expand its bus-tracking app, MyBusVue, through existing and additional routing partner integration. The company plans to launch additional driver time management and rider verification apps in the near future.
“We anticipate that Continental AG, which recently took a majority stake in Zonar, will allow us to bring more products and services into our markets as a vertical partner,” Mest said.
Demonstrating the many app options available to school bus customers, Tyler also has its My Stop app, and then there’s SafeStop, just to name a couple.
Future of Connected Bus
The day will soon come when school buses act more like an Internet of Things (IoT) device that automatically runs on a 24/7 cycle of connectivity. Navistar envisioned “a day in the life of a connected bus” and showcased it to attendees at the last NAPT Annual Summit in Kansas City last November.
“Today, we’re in a state of preventative technologies. In the future, it will be more predictive,” Reed said.
In a portion of a day, for example, a connected school bus with predictive applications could start remotely at 10 p.m. and automatically send a system check to the maintenance manager, who could see that an issue needs to be addressed in the morning. Scheduling apps would automatically switch buses for the driver of that route and make the flawed bus available when a technician is available.
“As we move forward, data analytics will show us the effectiveness of the bus. We’ll know things right away. Technology can take headaches away and make it easier for all stakeholders,” Reed said.
Reprinted from the February 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.
Editor's Note: A previous and printed version of this article failed to attribute the STN Wi-Fi survey to Kajeet, provider of the SmartBus hotspot for school buses. We regret this oversight.