What the bus will look like

Part 4: The Future of the Yellow School Bus

Thus far in this series we’ve been focused on technological and educational trends and their likely impact on the way we will use school buses in the future. But what is the likely configuration for the buses themselves? Here we briefly shift our focus from technology and education to one of the other challenges of our time, the changing environment and how our industry must adapt. If we accept our premise from the earlier installments in this series that the emerging digital-native customer base of students and parents will demand a technology-enabled interconnected school bus operated by a technology-savvy bus operator providing a host of on-demand and constantly shifting services, then here at DSG we believe the next obvious question is whether this customer base will allow these services to be delivered in a large, noisy, and environmentally dirty traditional school bus. We think not.

A shift to clean energy in our sector has operational implications, however, not all of which are immediately apparent in the early stages of this shift. Relative cost is certainly foremost among these, particularly when we consider the unknown cost implications of the service changes and operator cost base changes we are expecting. But maybe it is not as opaque as it appears right now. DSG believes that cost trends will follow the pattern already well established in clean energy generation and light-duty electric vehicle production. We already see market-based incentives emerging for a transition to clean energy school buses. These are heavily reinforced by numerous grant-based funding mechanisms that are already available to encourage a speedier transition. And just like with clean energy more generally, and electric vehicles more specifically, the cost differential with fossil fuel alternatives will narrow rapidly. A tipping point is not as far in the future as it may seem. Given the relatively long service life of the typical school bus, failing to consider the possibility of clean energy alternatives now feels like an increasingly risky capital asset management strategy to us.

Even with an affordable asset, however, we also need to be thinking about the operational implications of supporting infrastructure, range, and maintainability. While significant investments in recharging infrastructure will certainly be required and are undeniable, the trend toward improving battery range makes the day-to-day operation of an electric-powered school bus ever more feasible for an ever-increasing number of school districts. The very nature of a school bus operation, with centralized parking and refueling locations plus overnight charging, is particularly well suited to this transition. For sure, a shift in the base of trained electric-motive service technicians also presents an additional implementation challenge, but the future suitability and operability of the electric school bus is, in our view, undeniable.

This only leaves the question of whether we, the pupil transportation professionals, are prepared for it. In our view at DSG it simply doesn’t matter if we believe in it or want it to happen. The customers will demand it, and we need to be responsive. We also believe that our new operations specialists will appreciate the change. Will this transition happen all at once? No, it cannot. Is this transition already taking hold, and will it accelerate over time? Yes, we believe it has and it will. The only question is, will you ride the wave or be overtaken by it?

Stay tuned for more and join the conversation. Next time: Adaptation for those school districts that contract for pupil transportation services.