Indeed, while big automakers tout plans to build plug-in hybrid cars a few years from now, Navistar International Corp.'s school bus division, IC Corp., is already rolling out plug-in hybrid buses. This week, another one will be delivered in Pennsylvania.
To some, it's nothing less than a role reversal in innovation.
"The school-bus industry is usually 10 to 12 years behind," says Bill Schroyer, director of fleet management for the Florida Department of Education. "It was a surprise to see them do this and jump ahead. From the plug-in standpoint, we're ahead of the auto industry."
It's a big deal to the school-bus industry as well.
"There is a huge shift going on – a seismic shift in mind-set and in technology for us and for schools," says Randall Ray, manager of bus platform marketing for IC Corp., based in Warrenville, Ill. "Plug-in hybrid buses are a very viable system, and we have high expectations for it."
Other efforts to clean up school buses have emerged over the years. Some districts still employ a handful of all-electric or compressed natural-gas buses. Maintenance costs were high for CNG, and range of driving was a problem for electric, analysts say.
Fuel prices and concerns about global warming could increase receptivity to plug-in hybrids. But all agree the cost needs to come way down first.
"There's definitely a lot of interest," says Ryan Gray, senior editor at School Transportation News, a trade publication based in Los Angeles. "Fuel savings holds a lot of weight for people."
Each of the first 19 buses costs over $200,000 – more than double the cost of a regular model. At that price, they won't pay for themselves over their lives, even with superior fuel savings. It's a chicken-and-egg problem because until about 1,000 buses roll off assembly lines, the cost of production will keep prices high.