April 2011

Web-Based Telematics Move Beyond Dispensing Data

by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

With more and more riders toting smart phones, and concerns mounting over fuel usage and maintenance costs, telematics tools have advanced over the last few years to include not only massive amounts of data, but customized interpretation of the information and guidance on troubleshooting as well.

Additionally, the technology is getting easier to access. Most systems now only require a computer with an Internet connection or minimal pieces of hardware. 

Schedule performance

MV Technology, a spinoff of MV Transportation, anticipates meeting the increasing challenge of mobilizing a smart phone-savvy public in an environmentally friendly manner, now that more and more transit agencies run GPS-equipped vehicles. 

The company offers TimePoint, a tool that is hosted on MV's server and integrates onboard technology to interface with onboard GPS systems - from Mobile Data Computers to GPS- enabled cell phones - to track vehicle location, monitor on-time performance, record dwell times, and capture data that can be used to refine schedules and improve delivery. It can utilize any GPS system available on the bus. "It can be an existing GPS, or one of our units, which is basically a Nextel or any other kind of phone," Marsha Moore, CIO, MV Transportation, says. The phone can transmit GPS locations every 30 seconds. To access the system, operators just need an Internet-capable PC.

The tool is designed to be very affordable. By using Nextel or a cell phone to communicate the data, at less than $100, it eliminates the expensive cost of some other systems, which can range from $3,000 to $10,000 per vehicle. 

MV initially developed the software in order to gain feedback on its own level of on-time performance and how well its schedules were working. "It's very difficult with fixed-route to track on-time performance if you don't have some kind of automated system," Moore says. In the past, an employee called a "ride checker" would ride the bus for a day, record on a piece of paper what time the bus got to each of the stops and enter all the data into a spreadsheet. Alternately, a supervisor would sit at a major bus stop and track when all the buses actually arrived versus when they were supposed to. 

"It was a very manual effort and, if you only do that [about] once a month, you don't have a good feel for how you're actually performing. This has really helped us at MV to operate better," Moore says. "We can see immediately when problems are occurring and what drivers are not pulling out of the yard on time, with reporting on when [drivers] are laying over too long."

The real-time arrival system has been implemented in 23 locations. In 2010, MV Technology implemented TimePoint for the Anaheim Resort Transit System's Disneyland shuttle service. However, the first installment of the system was at Petaluma Transit in 2008. Joe Rye, GM, Petaluma Transit, says of the agency's TimePoint Kiosks, "It's exciting to see these low-cost options for AVL GPS transit data come into the market. It will improve performance, and it's great that the costs are becoming even more affordable." 

TimePoint enables transit agencies to assess how well its buses are running by performing predictive analysis. It extracts historical data and predicts what the schedule should be to meet the agency's goal for on-time performance. The agency can use that data to tweak their schedules to be closer to what's actually happening on the road, Moore says. If an agency's goal is, for example, 95 percent on-time performance, she explains, TimePoint can determine what the schedule should be to meet that goal. "Some stops may have too tight of a time frame during peak hours, or may not be tight enough in the early morning," says Moore. 

Another benefit of TimePoint is it allows the agency to be more environmentally friendly by cutting down on idling time. By giving operators the data they need to get rid of excess time in route schedules, they can reduce wait times. "If we build a schedule for winter when there's lots of snow, then the driver will more frequently have to sit at a stop. Even without the weather [factor], if the schedules are too loose, with drivers getting to stops too early, they have to wait until the TimePoint time in order to leave. That means more idling," Moore says. 

Dispatch also can see vehicles running late or early and take corrective action. "It helps dispatch manage better because right away they can see, for example, if the driver is consistently leaving a stop early," Moore explains. A blue icon on the screen indicates that a driver is leaving before they should. 

In addition, to help fixed-routes be more ADA sensitive, TimePoint offers dispatchers a tool that lets them log where wheelchair users are consistently being picked up say, at a senior center, and enables them to build additional time into the schedule.

Real-time arrival info

TimePoint also features alerts that automatically call passengers utilizing MV's central messaging system. Whenever an alert needs to go out to a rider, the system will interface to the central messaging system to send that alert out in either text, email or voice message. It interfaces not only with TimePoint but also with MV's paratransit systems. 

At TimePoint kiosks in a transit center or mall, riders can see a monitor showing the time the bus will arrive on each route, as well as a map of where each bus is located at any given time. For the kiosk, costs can range from $500 up to $5,000, depending on the hardware and the size of the screen the agency chooses. The mapping feature contains three different views: Aerial, showing where the bus is on a map; a view that shows buildings; and a birdseye view.  

Another rider benefit is a sign with a sticker at every bus stop with a station-specific number that any passenger with a cell phone can text to the phone number on the sign to find out when the bus will arrive. In a few seconds, a reply text will provide the same arrival information the rider would see on the kiosk. 

For phones with cameras, each bus stop sign carries a symbol, similar to a bar code. Riders can take a picture of it and receive the same information. This application is available for any phone that has texting capability. 

MV also offers an application for BlackBerries with more extensive standard route information and has an iPhone app in the works. Riders can also sign up for route-specific and time-specific email alerts with any information that could potentially affect their ride and set up a filter to only receive route-specific information. 

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