Buying Tomorrow’s Buses Today: Part 1: Introduction

Not long ago, trade magazine readers could sit back, read through the current issue of National Bus Trader, and review the details of the latest motorcoach to enter the market. But not long ago, policemen got your cat out of a tree.

Today, in the era of deregulation, voice jail and minimal staff, where low-balling bandit fleets crisscross the landscape, and where personal injury lawyers seem to haunt the highways like so many trolls, the real challenge is to stay in business. Those profits from reasonable fares that used to support well-paid, middle class drivers and thick management hierarchies are a thing of the past. So, like its fellow trade magazines, National Bus Trader has grown swollen with discussions of safety and liability.

These dynamics are what they are, and nothing presented in National Bus Trader is likely to change them. However, given these dynamics, making smart, sophisticated, life-cycle-cost-oriented vehicle and equipment choices is far more critical today than it was even a generation ago. In bygone generations, these choices defined profits. Today, they define survival.

Heat and Light

Further compounding the dynamics of Today’s motorcoach industry, we have succeeded in melting enough ice to place entire cities underwater: Amsterdam recently invested tens of billions to postpone its submersion; New Orleans obviously did not. We managed to double fuel costs during the first third of a single Presidential term – although, for now, the cancerous prices appear to be in remission. The U.S. dollar has shrunk by 100% compared to the Euro in the last three years alone. And Hurricane Katrina taught us – or should have – that buses and coaches belong in the same category as food, clothing and shelter.

Seeking to find the light and avoid the heat, National Bus Trader will present a series of articles designed to help motorcoach and bus operators select vehicles and equipment to do both. Because, increasingly, the motorcoach landscape has been broadened beyond MCIs, Van Hools, Prevosts, Neoplans and Setras, and because many motorcoach operators deploy “mixed fleets,” the discussion will also encompass both over-the-road buses and minibus conversions.

Safety in Context

At no time during my career in public transportation do I remember seeing the array of product improvements recently introduced into the bus and coach markets. This is particularly true with respect to safety and liability. Yet some things I have seen on buses, conversions and even coaches could be done better, and the worst of them are largely indefensible in a lawsuit. One example is the common practice, particularly in transit service, of mounting bicycle racks on the front cap, above the bumper level: When a bike is actually mounted, spotting a child crossing in front, up against the windshield, is like trying to taste caviar in buffalo wing sauce. Of course, when you chomp on the little eggs, you at least know you bit into something fishy. When your right-front tire crunches through a small child’s skull, you are likely to think you merely struck the curb. As the next six articles will demonstrate, this is hardly a facetious or exaggerated example of poor vehicle design. Frankly, I have seen a lot worse things there are also no needs or reasons for. Far more importantly – especially with Today’s wisdom and Tomorrow’s technology – we can do a lot better.

What makes trade-offs among safety and other variables so difficult from a buyer’s perspective is the fact that vehicles with such flaws are often among the best vehicles on the market in many other respects – particularly in terms of durability. Safety may be the most important consideration. But given Today’s ultra-competitive operating environment, it cannot realistically be the only consideration. Were one to boil down vehicle selection criteria to sound bytes, they might include:

  • Safety
  • Directional stability
  • Durability
  • Maneuverability
  • Comfort
  • Maintainability
  • Reliability
  • Versatility
  • Accessibility
  • Performance
  • Fuel economy
  • Air quality impacts

One could expand this list to a Baker’s dozen by adding liability. In truth, this construct has largely replaced safety as an evaluation factor, even though liability is really the sore finger on the hand of safety. Because the factors that enhance safety also limit exposure, however, there is little value in considering these criteria separately. Just the same, some safety factors affect liability more than others. For this reason, the treatment of vehicle and equipment safety in coming issues of National Bus Trader will make an effort to highlight those bricks which line the Yellow Brick Road to court, and which matter the most when one’s fleet is placed under the scrutiny of an accident victim’s attorneys and their expert witnesses.

Critical Trade-Offs

The financial nature of the U.S. public transportation industry further compounds the difficulty of making trade-offs in vehicle selection. Unsubsidized services (like most motorcoach services) operate in fiercely and unnecessarily competitive environments, while even subsidized services (like schoolbus and transit) operate in constrained funding environments. Both environments translate into underpaid drivers and – with the possible exception of transit – understaffed management and a paucity of consultants. While the safest vehicles and most dazzling technology cannot offset these operating constraints completely, they can offset them to a considerable degree.

Regardless of the nature of funding and operating environments, their pressures translate into an urgency for durability, maintainability and versatility. Other pressures, such as the cost of fuel and the need to minimize air pollution, skew decisions in a different direction. Still other markets that serve “choice” riders (like the charter, tour and limousine sectors) are sensitive to comfort (and even style). Because vehicle and equipment selection involve trade-offs, these conflicting pressures can compromise safety and expose the purchaser to liability.

In many cases, particularly where the difference in front-end costs is dramatic, the trade-offs among these variables is complex. But it is possible to resolve them. As an illustration, one might consider a vehicle’s structure and suspension system. Most bus and coach professionals would agree that monocoque construction is superior to body-on-chassis construction, just as most would agree that pneumatic suspension systems are superior to leaf-springs. However, in between these extremes lies a spectrum of variations, such as “integral” body-on-chassis construction, “enhanced” suspension systems and high-mass, low-floor chassis like that introduced by Workhorse. Regardless, trade-offs among structures and suspension systems also illustrate how key characteristics and features can affect one’s evaluation of a vehicle in most vehicle-selection categories:

Key Determinants affecting Vehicle Selection Criteria

 

 

 

Determinants

Structure

Suspension

 

 

 

Variables

 

 

 

 

 

Safety

x

x

Handling/Directional Stability

x

x

Durability

x

x

Maneuverability

x

x

Comfort

x

x

Maintainability

x

x

Reliability

x

x

Versatility

x

x

Performance

x

x

Like most things, better vehicles and equipment cost more in the short run. However, superior features and equipment generally cost less in the long run – when these costs are amortized against the vehicle’s full, natural life (see “Life Cycle Costing” in National Bus Trader, January, 2004). The key principle operating here is the fact that initial costs do not reflect a vehicle’s value. To realize this value, a buyer must treat a purchase as an investment. As an investment, one must optimize the degree to which the vehicle and its equipment meet or exceed certain criteria in every evaluation category. Naturally, accomplishing this feat requires a considerable amount of knowledge and effort.

Endless Choices, Endless Decisions

Apart from possibly Europe, more vehicle and equipment choices are available in North America than one might reasonably need. In one mixed-fleet vehicle selection project my firm recently conducted, we evaluated more than 100 buses and conversions in eight classification categories:

  • Minivan
  • Stock van
  • Cutaway van
  • Minibus conversion
  • Cab & chassis
  • Conventional
  • Forward control
  • Rear engine

The effort began by entering more than 20 basic characteristics of these vehicles into a matrix. So, before even considering the nuances, we identified 2000 variables. Selecting vehicles today is not a shopping spree. Its more like taking a six-credit course.

The project just described illustrates more than just the complexity involved in vehicle selection. It also illustrates the enormous range of niche markets for which vehicles and equipment have been developed, and the extraordinary opportunities a bus and coach buyer has for meeting his or her operating needs with striking precision. Most promising of all is the opportunity for expanding versatility – allowing an operator to “thicken his density” by purchasing and deploying vehicles that accommodate the broadest range of passengers, origins, destinations, operating environments and duty cycles, and which translate into the most hours of usage during the period before which the vehicles become obsolete, or their crashworthiness deteriorates meaningfully.

Limits and Focus

Taking vehicles and equipment out of the liability equation will, of course, not eliminate accidents and incidents altogether. But it will at least enable an operator to focus his or her attention on other aspects of service – most importantly system design, management, maintenance, and driving. Terrific vehicles and equipment will not do much to mitigate fatigue. They cannot help select and retain good drivers. And while some of Today’s equipment can collect, sort and format an impressive array of information, it cannot guarantee that anyone in management will bother to examine or use it. But having terrific equipment is an important start, and will go a long way toward minimizing accidents and exposure. It will also help “color your operation” safe if and when it is put on display before a jury.

It is also important to recognize that improvements in vehicles and equipment can evolve far more quickly than improvements in drivers – apart from, of course, the dynamics of declining driver quality that stem from increasingly paying drivers less and less. So while it may not be possible to optimize safety at the driver level, as a political matter, it is indeed possible to optimize it at the vehicle and equipment level.

Safety and Trade-offs

As a business matter, the entire range of variables noted above count, and must be factored into vehicle selection and specification decisions. In a courtroom, however, variables other than safety count little, while safety counts overwhelmingly. Most public transportation providers are considered “common carriers,” and as such, are held to the highest duty or standard of care. One cannot defend oneself from claims of negligence by waxing about ride comfort. However, one can often optimize safety along with variables like comfort if one has a detailed knowledge of vehicles and equipment, and systematically matches this knowledge to his or her passengers’ needs and the fleet’s operating environment and duty cycles. Because of the complexities involved, knowledge matters a great deal. Following the example cited earlier, a pneumatic suspension system (whether endemic to the vehicle or via an “enhanced” system) optimizes both safety and comfort, along with many other factors identified in the Figure above – even though the emphasis in marketing suspension systems typically focuses on ride comfort. Regardless, without such knowledge, one is more likely to make trade-offs in favor of variables other than safety. To their misfortune, individuals making such trade-offs often learn that the U.S. litigation environment is not forgiving when they can be linked to a fatality or serious injury.

If you are a small operator, a single serious incident can cost you your business, and possibly your career. If you are a large operator, there is a chance that a single serious incident can explode your insurance premiums – even though the industry is more likely to simply increase everyone else’s premiums to cross-subsidize yours. Because of this last twist, it is the ugly reality that when one of us makes a poor choice in vehicle selection and specification, we all pay for it. But as the crashworthiness issues within the spate of recent catastrophic accidents demonstrates, we also pay when some of us fail to buy anything, but instead, continue to deploy vehicles beyond their normal life spans, in deteriorated condition, with features that have become increasingly obsolete.

Starting and Finishing

One of the tragedies I observe as both a consultant and a forensic expert is that so little money is often spent on prevention, while no amount of money is spared to mop up the mess once a passenger, pedestrian or motorist is killed or injured. The public transportation industry would be far-better served by pouring its resources into vehicles, equipment, drivers, management and consultants than by padding the pockets of attorneys.

Understanding and accepting the dynamics of vehicle selection trade-offs is only a start. The real challenge is to absorb, sort and analyze the enormous range of variables involved in making choices that not only limit liability exposure, but which also optimize business survival and prosperity. No article or series of articles by itself can empower someone to accomplish these objectives. However, like many past magazine articles, the short series of articles to follow in subsequent issues of National Bus Trader will identify and highlight some things to look for in a few dozen safety-sensitive areas. After all, when the margins of both error and profit are so thin, every decision represents a possible edge. As we all know, in a fiercely competitive society with no national healthcare program, the edges of both business and litigation are razor-sharp.

Things to Come

Notwithstanding articles of more urgency pre-empting them, the next six installments of “Buying Tomorrow’s Vehicles Today” will address:

  • Structure and Suspension Systems
  • Doors, Lifts, Ramps and Stepwells
  • Seating, Securement and Padding
  • Crash Avoidance and Protection
  • Visibility, Comfort and Security
  • Accessibility, Stowage and Mounting

As a quick preview:

  • The discussion of structures and suspension systems will cover configurations (monocoque, integral, body-on-chassis), suspension systems (pneumatic, enhanced air ride, leaf springs, coils), flooring, windows and window retention, rollover and roof crushes, fuel tanks, tow hooks, and raised roofs, lowered floors and other conversion modifications, as well as their requirements and documentation.
  • The discussion of doors, interlocks, lifts, ramps and stepwells will include door formats (plug, pantographic, bi-fold, jack-knife) stepwells (step size, shape, riser height and tread depth), handrails, lift positions, lift features and requirements, ramps, hatches, running boards and footstools.
  • The discussion on Seating, Securement and Padding will address anchorages, compartmentalization, occupant restraints, wheelchair securement devices, modesty panels, stanchions, grab handles, passenger counting devices, and other appendages and protrusions.
  • The discussion of crash avoidance will encompass bumpers, motion sensing devices, crossing devices, flashers and warning lights, reflectors, fire suppression systems, horns, PA systems and speakers, MDTs and AVLs.
  • The discussion of visibility, comfort and security will target exterior and interior illumination and lighting, light-failure monitors, mirrors, cameras, dash fans and defrosters, signage and visors.
  • Finally, the discussion of accessibility, stowage and mounting will examine A/C and electrical/charging systems, wheelchair and other mobility aid securement devices, package racks and bicycle racks.

As noted, emphasis will lie on features enhancing safety and reducing liability exposure. While these installments are being developed, and consistent with the range of topics reasonably treatable and the level of detail practical, readers are encouraged to suggest topics to include, and safety tips to consider, by contacting safety@busmag.com.

Choices and Counterchoices

My anti-communism childhood included pity for the Russians because they had only one brand of toothpaste. As anyone who travels quickly learns, such notions were complete malarkey. A decade ago, its exhaustive product line helped to kill my former Slovene bus-manufacturing business partner, TAM BUS. TAM BUS would design, engineer and produce an entirely new vehicle to sell five of them. In another Eastern European country, I came across a vehicle manufacturer producing 105 models of fire trucks.

Having flavors beyond vanilla has its merits. But partly because of so much variety, buying buses is not the fun it used to be. In the past, as long as you had good brakes and steering, you bore little risk from less-than-perfect choices. Today, buying a bus is like attending college. So many choices, so little time. Too many consequences, not enough money.

Vehicles, Equipment and Liability, oh My

We often make the mistake of trading off safety and liability for comfort and style. As my opinions and those of others in the industry have hopefully stressed, this is a big mistake in Today’s litigious environment. While glitz may sell some rides, choosing style over content translates into enormous risk. Further, like the transit industry, our charter and tour sector ridership is evolving more and more into “The Motorcoach-Dependent” – just as it has in the intercity/regular route sector and, to a lesser degree, the commuter/express sector. Demand for bus and motorcoach service is growing. Now is the time to invest in vehicles. But it is also the time to invest in safety.

In terms of both foreign tourists and domestic travelers, the dynamics of increased need and increased ridership signal what may be the last great opportunity for the motorcoach industry in our lifetimes. If there was ever a time to invest in this business, that time is now. Now is the time to thicken your density. Now is the time to pluck the best management from the competition. Now is the time to up drivers’ salaries and expand your workforce. And now is the time to actually buy all that terrific shiny, beeping, flashing stuff you ogle every time you attend a trade show. If you want to make a go of it in the motorcoach business, now is the time to stop drooling and start investing.

If understatement may be excused, things have been extremely tough for the motorcoach industry in recent years. That faint light we see lies at the end of our tunnel. But there is no remote doubt that we are in the tunnel. We are not going to dig our way out without a serious investment of time and resources.

The thing people notice most about lions, tigers and bears is not their size or their strength. It is their roar. But it is the bite that lands you in court. As you may remember, sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never hurt you.

Publications: National Bus Trader.