Exclusive Interview: Tim Ammon of Zonar

Zonar recently hired Tim Ammon as the new vice president & general manager of passenger services. With more than 20 years of experience in school transportation operations analysis, Ammon brings expertise in student safety protocols, cost management, organizational design, and technology use.

School BUSRide spoke to Ammon about his experience in student transportation, his new responsibilities, and a preview of his session at the upcoming NAPT Conference & Trade Show.

Tell us about yourself and your time in the industry.

I started out more than 20 years ago providing consulting services predominantly in the fleet maintenance and management realm and working in schools here and there. In 2001, myself, Andy Forsyth and Tom Platt started a consulting company called Management Partnership Services that was focused on school transportation. We continued those efficiency studies and assessments of organizations, also focusing on some very interesting projects in and around funding and technology and the relationship between transportation and education.

In 2019 Tom and I started a new consulting company called Decision Support Group, which is when we really began to develop a tight relationship with NAPT as a consequence of the pandemic and trying to be a resource and finding ways to support each other.

Starting in May of this year, I moved over to replace Kevin Mest who had retired and was the former general manager for passenger services at Zonar. Kevin was a longtime friend and colleague, and I was lucky enough to have him reach out and talk with him about the transition. Now here I am, sitting in this technology space that I think is incredibly exciting, that is going to be a fundamental driver of industry capacity in the near and medium term. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position to be part of the technical and operational transformations that are coming.

You are Zonar’s new vice president and general manager of passenger services. What can you tell us about your responsibilities and overall goals?

I have overall responsibility for all of our sales folks primarily. The way our organization is structured, our teams that service both contractors and districts, roll up to me. We have an interesting structure across our organization where there are integrated teams of customer service, sales, and technical support people. I have relationships across the organization so that when someone who has acquired Zonar technologies needs help, we have everybody in the boat. All of our efforts are focused on addressing questions like How can we make this organization better, how can we fix their problem, how can we make sure that whatever they are having a problem with we can address? We do that through my relationships at a senior level across the organization, and my team’s relationships throughout the organization across all of the different verticals and all of the different functional areas that exist.

I am lucky enough to have two VPs: Ryan Sharkey, who works on the contractor side, and Matt Dickey who works on the district side and who I will be presenting with at the conference. They are incredible professionals and really care about the customer base and how they can make maximum use of our products. I feel really fortunate to have them as part of the team.

What can you tell us about Zonar’s new partnership with ChargePoint and Highland?

We, like everybody, are trying to understand and participate in all of the different aspects of the electrification movement that is occurring across the industry. For us, it has become a really interesting set of relationships because of where we sit and our relationship with what the vehicle is actually doing every day.

The routing software companies are focused on the planning aspect, operating companies are focused on delivering services every day, our focus is ensuring that people have both access to and awareness of what the units are doing when they are actually running every day. What is interesting is, because of the concerns about range awareness or range anxiety, depending on how you see the problem, it is important for us to be able to communicate back to the customer what the available state of charge is in the vehicle. We have built in technology and capability into our system that allows our customers with electric vehicles to have awareness about the state of charge so they can make choices about allocation of resources and assignments.

Then when we think about the partnerships with the charging companies like ChargePoint, there is an enormous ecosystem of data that is occurring at the connection point where people are connecting these assets to the grid and it is providing them information on the health of the vehicle, the consumption of electricity, the passing of information back and forth to the grid.

One of the things that we think about, from the perspective of our technology, is that we can support customers by identifying what the condition of the asset as it is out at work, what the variance is of the asset relative to what we thought it was going to be able to do at any given time, and how frequently do we have to charge the asset? Additionally, we can help address what is the right time to charge and how does this potentially differ from one vehicle versus a fleet of vehicles? I have said in forums that if I buy two of these, it is an experiment. If I buy 20 of them, I am managing a fleet and they are two very different problems. Our focus is on how our tools, products and technologies can be part of both the experiment and the management of the fleet? That is what we are focused on from an electrification standpoint.

From your perspective on the technology side, what do you see as being the most significant changes in pupil transportation over the next five years? 

The challenges and the opportunities both end up being derivative of what is happening from an electrification standpoint. From a technological standpoint, what is interesting about this space is, if we start with electrification, how can our product be used to allow our customer to be confident in range awareness so that you can make good decisions and ad hoc decisions.

Ad hoc decisions about vehicle allocation practices means that services similar to the ones that Zonar offers, are going to become increasingly important because it is going to change who the singular most important person in the operation is. In my mind, that person is going to be the dispatcher, the person who has the deepest view into the system and understands that on any given day we are very likely to be short resources, and will be aware of what the capability of those existing resources are, and how to best assign asset A to mission B in order to have outcome C.

That, to me, is going to remain the fundamental challenge, the fundamental opportunity of this business over the next five years because this idea that we are going to solve the driver shortage is a ship that has sailed. As a consequence, what we have to do better is make resource allocation decisions. Zonar, I think in particular, can be part of the process that allows people to make smart resource allocation decisions.

What are some ways that associations and businesses can help each other to best serve members of that association and members of the industry?

The nature of how the relationship meets those goals has changed substantially since COVID. The primary reason for those partnerships previously was one of introduction. It used to be associations could introduce its members to the products and services that companies provided, and that was fine, and it remains an important and compelling aspect of why you would go to a trade show. But I think what COVID taught us is that there is actually this deeper connection to problem solving and issue resolution. Now, associations can help connect members to organizations. 

to resolve the broader range of challenges that a member has. Those challenges might be a need for a product, it might be a need for an idea, it might be a need for community and sharing solutions.

In my mind, the benefit of an organization like Zonar to NAPT is that we have a huge base of experience and a base of expertise in and around the operating challenges that transportation providers face every day that makes us a useful resource to the membership. NAPT proves to be a benefit for Zonar by giving us an opportunity to more fully understand what key concerns are challenges are for school transportation providers every day. 

People who work in school transportation are fundamentally driven by the noble goal of enabling kids access to education and providing them the opportunity to, in many instances, potentially eat the only two meals that they are going to have every day, feel the only safety that they are going to feel every day, and most importantly, to give them the opportunity to expand their worldview. I think NAPT and its partners like Zonar are a critical element in the ecosystem of ensuring that our target population, which is the kids out there who are trying to get educated across the country, are both well-served and well understood.

You are speaking at the upcoming NAPT Annual Conference and Trade Show on outfitting your school bus fleet for emergency preparedness. Can you provide a preview of what people can expect to learn?

I find it to be a fascinating topic right now, particularly given recent events on Mau`i. In Hawai`i you see the yeoman’s work that Ground Transportation and Robert’s Transportation Services were doing on as part of that response effort. It is a stark reminder of the role that school buses play not only in emergency services related to school activities, but emergency services in and around the activities of the community.

What Matt Dickey and I will focus on is the question of how to take the tools and the resources that are available to you to ensure that, as an organization, you are in a position to be able to respond when high stress, high intensity, high consequence incidents occur. If we have a lockdown, can we figure out who is in the lockdown zone? Can we figure out who is outside of it? Can we figure out who we can get there to get kids outside of it? If we have active shooter situations, do we know where that asset is? Can we communicate with law enforcement? Can we communicate with other first responders to be able to support emergency services.

When we have issues around wildfires, can we marshal resources in such a way that supports evacuations of tens of thousands of people like they have been doing in Hawai`i? While I am committed to and have always been focused on the educational aspects of transportation services, I think the Maui efforts continue to highlight how the resources of our industry can be directed to other community events and other community incidents that make us a massively valuable part of the whole community.

If you could leave us with one takeaway based on your experience in the industry, what would that be?

I think the biggest thing that I have learned is that I am a lot less certain about how certain I was before. If I am a transportation director, I have to be focused on flexibility because I do not have any other choice. I do not have enough resources, I do not have enough people, I do not have enough time. What I cannot commit to is what I believe is the only way to do something. What I have to commit to is identifying what is the best way, the right way, the safest way, for me to do something right now.