IC Corp., one of North America’s largest school bus manufacturers, is now offering factory-installed remote tracking components to provide real-time information on the location and performance of its vehicles. The company’s Aware Vehicle Intelligence (AVI) technology is fully integrated with the electronics components of its buses, so all important functions can be monitored remotely, IC says.

IC’s move is the latest step in the growing trend of using global positioning system (GPS) technology to track and manage school bus fleets. Until now, however, most schools have had to retrofit existing buses with the technology from third-party providers. IC is believed to be the first company to offer the technology as a standard component of its buses–but other companies might not be far behind. Monitoring can range from keeping track of the location of a bus at all times to tracking how often the flashing red warning lights are activated. Designated officials can visit a password-protected web site to get information about the school bus fleet. The system also features a capability that allows school officials to designate a virtual boundary for school buses.

In addition, IC says incorporating AVI technology into its school buses will help ensure that buses are being driven properly and that all maintenance records are updated. The system can inform school bus fleet managers when a bus is due for scheduled maintenance or when it’s time to replace parts.

“Every day, school bus officials around North America have a general idea of where their buses are, but with this technology, they can log onto the internet and find out specifically where any school bus is located in real time, including reading all of the specs on how the school bus is performing and a history of stops along the bus route,” said Michael Cancelliere, vice president and general manager of IC Corp. “This bus-tracking technology provides knowledge that increases control and confidence for transportation officials.”

Rick Glasmann, truck electronics marketing manager for IC Corp., said the AVI system provides a high-level overview of the whole bus’s system.

The telematics module, which uses onboard computers in concert with telecommunications systems, is “the brain of everything,” Glasmann said. “It’s mounted up inside the dashboard of the bus on the driver’s side. It uses what is basically a cell phone antenna to communicate through the satellite. That module transmits engine data, transmission data, and any other diagnostic information. It’s sent to a secure web site that the user can access from anywhere.”

Glasmann said the system uses GPS technology to permit authorized parties to know where the bus is located at all times.

“It gives a detailed road history. Any time the bus stops at any location, it records the date, time, and how long the stop lasted,” Glasmann said. “Idle time is recorded, which helps save fuel. Is your driver sitting in a donut shop idling?”

The “geofence” feature allows administrators to demarcate bus routes by alerting administrators when a route’s path has been violated.

“Administrators identify four points on a map, and those kind of act as an electronic dog fence” for the bus, Glasmann said. “We can send an alert that the bus has exited or entered an area. If a bus has a specific route and leaves that area, then we can send a message back to the web site, to a [personal digital assistant], to a cell phone, or a beeper.”

The technology, Glasmann continued,”is fully integrated with the vehicle’s electronics system to report on the diagnostic health of the vehicle. It reports back information like battery power, the odometer, and driving time. It also reports back to administrators with emissions fault codes and transmission fault codes. Say your engine is not operating properly–the fault code turns the engine light on, and a message is simultaneously sent back to the web site.”

Glasmann said fleet managers usually schedule their vehicle servicing using a calendar, rather than engine operating hours and mileage on the vehicle. But the AVI technology records all of this information, so the servicing of a vehicle can be done more efficiently–that is, when it is needed as opposed to when it is scheduled.

Glasmann noted that driver behavior also can be monitored using the technology.

“We can monitor & how they’re breaking, if they’re speeding, high engine RPMs. When a bus does stop and pick up children, we can tell you whether the stop arm was deployed. We can send it back to a fleet manager through a web site to monitor what’s going on with that bus driver,” he said.

“I’m sure you’ve heard stories about how kids get left on the bus. We can even determine if a driver goes back and checks to make sure that all the seats are empty at the end of a run,” he said.

Glasmann explained that a beeper in the back of the bus goes off at the end of the run. If the driver does not walk through to the back of the bus and turn it off, a signal can be sent to the monitoring web site.

Robin Leeds, industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association, said GPS technology is not widespread in the industry yet and, as far as she knows, IC Corp. is the first manufacturer to offer the service as a standard feature.

“It is something that is gaining more interest from school districts as they are looking at ways to know where the bus is so they can track late arrivals, tell parents when the bus is coming, and discover security breaches,” Leeds said. “But it is now also becoming more popular for use as a fuel management tool. You can use it to make sure the buses are operating efficiently, which has become a very big issue.”

Leeds said some resistance has been seen, mostly at the union level.

“I think that what many bus drivers have said is that, as long as drivers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, there’s no reason to be concerned about GPS,” she said. “I think the resistance we have seen has come primarily out of the Boston area. That seems to be union-driven rather than driver-driven.” (See story Bus drivers’ union broadsides GPS plan.)

Local representatives for the Boston School Bus Drivers Union did not return messages left by an eSchool News reporter. But documents posted on the union’s web site discuss the GPS issue in light of recent contract negotiations. The documents refer to the city’s decision to install GPS technology in its buses after initially agreeing not to as a “back-stab” on the part of city officials. The documents say the GPS “spy devices” will mean “discipline and pay cuts” for city bus drivers, leading to such results as the disciplining of “drivers for being allegedly untimely in their routes, for alleged unauthorized use of the bus, for alleged failure to properly notify dispatch of events, to track buses and rewrite buses to speed up operations, etc.”

In one document, USWA Local 8751 Labor Union President Steven Gillis states that the union believes extra bus transportation resources should be spent for additional safety features, “including human monitors on the buses to help with the students’ needs…not millions for spy satellites in the sky.”

IC Corp.’s technology reportedly will add about $800 to the purchase price of new buses. Ed Joyce of Leonard Bus Sales, a New York distributor of IC Corp. vehicles, said his company is subsidizing a pilot program with the systems–and he’s heard no complaints about them so far.

“The response from school transportation directors very early in the pilot test has been extremely positive,” said Joyce. “We will continue the pilot for another three or four months, then schools can elect to keep systems at their own expense or return them.”

Dennis Whittaker, vice president of engineering at Blue Bird Corp., an IC competitor, said his company has no immediate plans to add GPS functionality as a standard feature of its school buses.

“The competition is offering it on a school bus?” said Whittaker when contacted by an eSchool News reporter. “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

Links:

IC Corp.
http://www.ic-corp.com

National School Transportation Association
http://www.yellowbuses.org

USWA Local 8751: Boston School Bus Drivers Union
http://www.bostonschoolbusunion.org

Blue Bird Corp.
http://www.blue-bird.com