|The School Bus Industry and AVL/GPS, Part 2: Large Fleet Installs and Integration|
|Written by Stephane Babcock|
|Friday, 01 June 2007 00:00|
Any large-scale project that involves new technology and new relationships can be complicated. Add almost three dozen bus contractors, multi-company partnerships, a need for software integration and a transportation fleet of over 2,000 buses, and you’ve got what seems like an impossibility.
“Full GPS solutions for school districts are complicated,“ said Mike Darling, senior vice president of business development for Edulog. “They require a high level of awareness and expertise in order to function for this very specialized niche market. Districts should be very careful about who they contract with, evaluating not just how large the company is, but also their track record specifically in the pupil transportation market.”
Rising gas prices and fears over the security of school buses have fast-tracked many districts to begin planning AVL/GPS installs that can integrate routing software and also track students. Metropolitans like Chicago and New York City, which run 2,600 and 6,500 buses, respectively, have been gearing up for some time and are currently researching all the possibilities.
“NYC held a pre-bid conference last year,” said Ned Einstein. “This is part of a five-year project. In the first stage, they hired a consultant to help them collect and analyze data on all of the GPS options. In the second stage, they’ll pick the two most promising options and test them on some of the buses.”
The process of accepting bids can also become quickly complicated. In Chicago, a week after accepting proposals from eight different companies, including IBM, Edulog and Cingular, public school officials decided to scrap the first round and start over.
“There were some technical things that got in the way,” said Chester Tindall, general manager of the Chicago Public Schools transportation department. “We’re putting in a new student information system, and to satisfy everyone, we have to make sure the new specifications were included in the request for proposals (RFP). We had to make sure the technology would match the new infrastructure that we had installed.”
Some industry sources believe the new RFP is due to the fact that CPS officials spoke too soon about the bids, mentioning too much on the amount they would like to spend on each system and what they would require.
“Transportation directors are under a gag order during an RFP. The school district wants them to stay away from vendor influence and the media,” said one source.The matters can become more complicated when the demands of the district are not fully realized during the planning process.
“Many of these school districts do not understand what is involved and what they need to accomplish in the end,” said Einstein.
As mentioned before, a simple GPS install has now evolved to include routing software integration and student tracking. School districts not only want to know where their buses are, but which students are riding them, how fast are they getting from point A to point B, how can they save money on fuel and a growing number of other possibilities.
In Dallas and Orange County, Fla., school districts were able to complete full GPS installs while integrating new software applications on their entire fleets.
“These are the flagship districts, the pioneers of GPS in the school bus industry that paved the way for these other districts,” said Dave Pettine, vice president of sales and marketing at Everyday Wireless, which worked with Dallas and Orange County to integrate a total of 1,500 and 1,200 units, respectively. (Look for an article on completed large-fleet installs in the July issue of STN.)
One way to work out all the bugs that might pop up along the way is to take baby steps instead of giant leaps.
Houston Independent School District began a 12-month pilot program this past January on 50 of the its 900 buses.
“We are monitoring the system to see how well it’s working,” said Aric Taylor, manager of routing and scheduling for the transportation department. “So far everything’s been working great. We currently monitor amber lights, chair lift power, ignition on/off, stop arm, DVR failure, rear exit door and we have a silent alarm.”
Synovia is working with the school district to make sure everything will be ready when the decision is made to install the systems on the rest of the fleet, which the school district said it plans to do according to its three-year, phase-in program.
“The people operating the systems will be trained on the job to teach them how to use and maintain the systems,” said Brad Bishop, Synovia’s chief operating officer. “Larger cities are pushing companies to strive to be better. It’s a partnership; they are deciding what they want and we make changes that benefit other districts. Houston wanted to monitor the functioning of the camera system. The video system sends out a signal if there’s a problem, then our system reads this and sends the department an alert that a certain system on a certain bus is malfunctioning.”
Houston is not the only school district easing itself into this new technology. Frank Marasco, executive director of the British Columbia Association of School Transportation Advisors, has been working with the provincial government to tie its proposed GPS/AVL/student tracking system into a central server that all schools in the province will be able to access.
“Hopefully, a full pilot program will be in place by the fall in one region that will include five districts and 300 buses. We will see how the data transfers to one central server,” said Marasco. “It’s quite simple, but complex. The total package will be something that doesn’t exist anywhere right now.”
The price tag for the project is currently being discussed with the government, which plans to fund the up front costs. School districts will then be responsible for the ongoing costs, which will be paid for on a per-student basis, according to Marasco.
“The contractors are going to have to work with the school districts. We will have to allow them access to the system, but only after approval from that district’s school board,” said Marasco. “They may have to pay, but it will be built into the contracts. It will be on a go-forward basis.”
Chicago had a similar plan when it came to paying for the massive install.
“The vendors signed a contract that they would pay up to $1,500 for the complete system per bus,” said Tindall. “They will also pay a portion of the monthly charge. Vendors will have the system 24-7, which is why they have agreed to pay for a portion of it.”
“It was put into the contract two years ago that they would be requiring all contractors to install GPS systems onto their buses and that the GPS system would be decided upon by the city,” said John Benish, Jr., owner of Chicago School Transit Bus Company. “I think it will save on route time and give the school district more information to make us more efficient.”
Communication between the different parties involved can either make or break this type of venture. In New Mexico, where the state has decided to install GPS into each one of its 3,200 buses, open and constant communication has kept this project on track.
“We will have them installed on all buses, contractor- and district-owned,” said Gilbert Perea, state transportation director. “Some of the private companies were already looking into installing GPS, but decided to hold off and wait.”
The state government has kept all parties involved up to date on a constant basis.
“We’ve always been able to call Gilbert’s office, and they have been great about listening to our concerns,” said Mike Whitehead, owner of B&G Transportation. “There’s been a lot of forethought that has gone into the program.“
From the government, to the district, to the vendors, communication acts as the grease that eases the process along. Instead of jumping into the mix, though, some companies wait and watch for the most opportune time to get involved.
“If you partner with one particular company, you are locking yourself out,” said Tony Civitella, president of Transfinder. “I’ll work with any company, its a safer bet. We don’t have any exclusive deals. Once I say I’m going to work only with XYZ company, if they don’t get a contract, I don’t get it.”
This type of mentality is shared by some of the GPS companies involved in many of these bids.
“We are software agnostic,” said Paul Fischer, national sales development manager for Everyday Wireless. “We partner and integrate with the major software players, so we can go into a school district that already has routing software installed. When the hardware marries with the software and the school district see what’s really possible, it really comes to life.”
|Last Updated on Monday, 21 December 2009 17:18|