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Resident Transportation Leaps Ahead

February 1, 2004
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Coming innovations in bus and van technology BY DOUGLAS J. EDWARDS, ASSISTANT EDITOR
Resident Transportation Leaps Ahead

Transportation expert Halsey King anticipates enhanced safety, comfort, and engineering in this year's buses and vans

BY DOUGLAS J. EDWARDS, ASSISTANT EDITOR "A springboard year for change"-that's how transportation consultant Halsey King sees the van and bus market in 2004. In fact, vehicles with new passenger amenities, improved safety features, and better engineering have the potential to continue progress in resident/passenger safety and enjoyment and vehicle fuel-efficiency, he says. King, whose Carlsbad, California, firm provides management advisory assistance and technical training for bus maintenance, says buyers in long-term care can expect the following new features on buses and vans in 2004: Starting with the engine, King says more vehicles these days are using ceramic components that are lighter than steel and reduce maintenance costs, and all manufacturers are now offering new diesel engines with high-tech components to keep maintenance costs low (except in California, where diesel engines are banned). Improved transmissions are using synthetic transmission fluids to increase the transmission's lifespan. As vehicles move to a 42-volt electrical system, bus and van operators will "drive by wire"; power steering will operate not via a fluid-pump-based system but rather a completely electrical system (Some passenger cars have already made this transition). This new system eliminates environmentally unfriendly power-steering fluid and has fewer parts to replace. It even makes heated steering wheels possible, notes King. This doesn't mean buses and vans will have more wiring, though. More efficiently designed electrical systems use much less wiring, which improves system reliability. Eliminating wires also makes for lighter vehicles and thus improved fuel economy, King says.

New wiring systems mean enhanced rider comfort, too. More power available from the 42-volt system enables residents to enjoy heated seats and dropdown LCD screens for movies and TV programs. New white-light LED lights provide better overall interior illumination for vision-impaired riders and for reading. Not convinced that LED lights and heated seats are worth the extra cost? "There are very few things we make in the automotive world that don't have practical applications and a long-term goal of providing greater safety and reduced operating costs," King says, adding that the case in point here is that, despite LED lights higher upfront cost, they could outlast the vehicle before needing to be replaced; moreover, enhanced illumination offered by LED lights is an important safety consideration for elderly riders. New buses and vans will be offering other safety features, as well, King notes. Powered safety doors are being designed to not close when an object enters their path. Manufacturers are installing less slippery flooring, and in the near future buses and vans might have more than the standard first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, and body-fluids cleanup kit on board; King sees some vehicles evolving into "ambulettes,"as heart defibrillators and devices to handle hospital equipment are included.

Often just getting residents in and out of vehicles is a challenge. To address this problem, buses and vans are moving toward incorporating brightly colored, highly visible handles and steps. Some buses can lower and raise themselves, and some are using ramps instead of wheelchair lifts. King expects to see this year wheelchair lifts with different electronics and safety margins to handle larger battery-powered wheelchairs and heavier residents. Replacing wheelchair tie-downs from time to time could become a thing of the past if tie-downs made of DuPont's rugged Kevlar« material are introduced. King sees seatbelts as another natural application for Kevlar. Riders in wheelchairs or with oxygen equipment can also benefit from the smoother ride of airbag suspension systems (instead of spring-based systems) that are currently available.

New features often debut in smaller vehicles and later make their way to the larger ones, says King. Although vehicles equipped with the latest improvements and enhancements might cost more upfront, King says the higher price is worth the improved fuel-efficiency, ride quality, and safety profile that many of the new buses will offer, and he relates an example from his own experience to show that prices do indeed fall over time: "Catalytic converters: I bought a new Cadillac El Dorado in 1976 that had a catalytic converter on it. GM told me at the time that when it went bad, it would cost $400 to replace. Now I can go down to the muffler shop and get one for $29.95. So, as things become more ordinary and more manufacturers make them, the price will come down."

If you are in the market for a bus or van now, though, King advises you not to pass up on investigating possible upgrades that could produce future savings and satisfied residents. NH
Halsey King is President of Halsey King & Associates in Carlsbad, California. For further information, phone (760) 720-0735 or e-mail hkingassoc@aol.com. To comment on this article, please send your e-mail to edwards0204@nursinghomesmagazine.com.
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