School buses to get smart makeovers

Smart technology is being introduced gradually in buses ferrying schoolchildren this year, a move that will allow parents to make e-payments and communicate more easily with the driver who will also know for sure all the children have boarded the bus before moving off.

This smart bus fleet management system, which is being developed by the Singapore School and Private Hire Bus Owners' Association, will be installed in at least 800 of its members' buses by 2022.

Smaller operators with five or fewer buses will get priority, its president Phillip Peh told The Straits Times yesterday. There are more than 1,400 such companies operating a total of more than 2,100 buses in the association.

It is not known which schools will be involved yet as a single school may be served by more than one operator. Collectively, the association's members serve about half of Singapore's primary and secondary schools.

The smart move is "part of a push towards digitalising the bus transport industry", which involves a lot of manual work, said Mr Peh.

For instance, if a bus en route to pick up students breaks down, the current modus operandi is for its operator to call and inform each child's parent about the delay, he said.

With the new system and accompanying mobile app, the driver and operator need to only send out a group message to parents.

Similarly, the parent of a sick child can use the app to inform the driver.

EZ-Link has partnered the association to enable e-payments for parents via an e-wallet app.

This would be more efficient than the cash or cheque collection now, which Mr Peh said can be complicated by accounting errors or mishandling of money by children.

Parents may also be able to opt for a Giro transfer if they wish.

At the same time, each bus will be fitted with an ez-link card reader for students to tap their cards to record that they have boarded the bus. Money will not be deducted from their cards.

The project, including software development and hardware installation, is estimated to cost about $7 million. It is funded by Enterprise Singapore, which supports innovation by small and medium-sized enterprises, and the association.

Upgrading each bus is estimated to cost between $4,000 and $6,000, but up to 70 per cent of it will be subsidised, said Mr Peh.

Some parents, such as housewife Michelle Teo, are worried that the upgrading costs may drive up school bus fees.

Said the 42-year-old: "All these upgrades will cost money and the fees are paid monthly, so if there is a hike, it will add up over a year."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2020, with the headline School buses to get smart makeovers. Subscribe