Automatic vehicle location (AVL) has evolved from simply tracking where vehicles are in real time, to tracking the health of engines and transmissions to interstate mileage and, finally, to tracking security information with the use of video. Traditionally, fleet operations have invested in AVL technology on the basis of fleet dispatch and monitoring to enhance passenger service, says Dave Turney, president and CEO of Digital Recorders Inc. (DRI). Today, more and more operations are making more of these investments to improve security and make more efficient use of assets.
A number of companies offer AVL products (See sidebar on pg. 54), with options ranging from text messaging, covert alarms, passenger counting and vehicle maintenance monitoring. Dallas-based DRI, one of many companies offering satellite-based products, offers a new video tracking option as part of its DR600 product family, which provides video images on a real-time basis for security incident reporting. “[With this system] you can take the video information that’s being collected passively and in the event that there’s a security incident, you can shift into a mode of real-time monitoring,” Turney says. “Suddenly, AVL takes on a very important role in the security context.”
In addition to security tracking, AVL products generate different reports for the items being tracked. With Radio Engineering Industries Inc.’s (REI) fleet management product, also satellite-based, users log on to a Website for 24-hour access to vehicle information. Users can pull up a report for each vehicle, which tracks whether the engine is off, idling, moving, etc.
“One of the priorities for customers is monitoring excessive idling,” says REI Account Executive Bob Greene. “[Users] can actually see when the coach goes into the idling function and then when it goes into stop idle, and when the vehicle starts moving again.”
Another function allows users to set up parameters for vehicles, which sends a text message alert when the vehicle crosses a particular boundary and goes off its course. Customers know what they want to track and aren’t shy about asking for specific features, says Greene. “The guys who are using [the technology] are going to shape how it turns out and where it’s heading.”
Coverage, capacity, cost
When choosing an AVL system, the main items prospective users consider beyond features are cost and coverage. These two factors are dependent on the type of technology — radio, cellular or satellite — used to communicate the vehicle location. When rating cost and coverage, radio is on one end of the spectrum and satellite is on the other, with cellular in the middle, says Brad Bishop, CEO of Synovia, an AVL supplier headquartered in Indianapolis. With radio-based AVL systems, users pay for the equipment, and the coverage area is limited to local coverage. “That could mean 10, 20 or 30 miles. It depends on how much money you spend on the radio system.”
On the cellular side, companies “piggyback” on existing carriers such as Cingular, Verizon or Nextel. “There’s no upfront cost in terms of communications equipment, you just pay a monthly or yearly fee to keep them on the network,” Bishop says. “Cellular coverage is very good. Aside from very rural areas, [its] primary benefit is long range coverage.”
In the case of satellite, users are communicating — sending and receiving via satellite, resulting in a higher cost; however, tracking capabilities are superior to radio and cellular programs.
Some prospective buyers were convinced of the benefits of satellite technology in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when cellular communication was knocked out. “We’d been looking into a GPS/AVL system for some time, and we had pretty well selected a system that was cellular-based,” says Bob O’Brien, president and CEO of Oklahoma City-based motorcoach tour and charter service Time Lines. “When the hurricanes came along, we participated in the relief effort and saw there wasn’t any cellular communication. This made us rethink our approach, and we ultimately went with REI’s satellite-based system.”
The capacity to send data is also an important consideration for users. While all three technologies (radio, cellular and satellite) can send basic GPS data in terms of where the bus is going and what it’s doing, adding more advanced functions requires larger capacity. “If you’re looking into options like sending video, people tracking or sending data back and forth from the engine, then you need to look at cellular and satellite systems,” says Bishop, “because, they provide more in terms of capabilities.”
While satellite technology is the costliest of the three, the ultimate cost to outfit a fleet with any type of technology depends on fleet size and number of features added. “You may want to include passenger counting, video monitoring and wireless transmission,” DRI’s Turney says. “It depends on how many of those features are involved.”
Usually, a large percentage of the investment is not in the equipment or the software onboard the vehicle, it’s related to the back office, what is call the “fixed end.” This can comprise software, monitoring stations and the equipment needed to receive the input and issue the output to the hardware on the buses.
“Depending on how many buses I have to average the back office cost over, it can have a huge impact on the effective per-bus installation cost,” Turney says. This means that the larger the fleet, the lower the average cost per vehicle. According to Turney, an average range of costs to equip a vehicle with basic satellite-based technology, which includes the back-end expense, is approximately $7,500 to $10,000 a vehicle.
One of the basic benefits of AVL technology is tracking vehicle on-time performance, which allows for the adjustment of routes. “We were looking for a means to publish a more accurate schedule and to keep to a more accurate schedule,” says Trevor Ocock, Central Ohio Transit Authority’s (COTA) transportation superintendent. “We’ve been able to use on-time performance tracking to identify problem areas on specific lines, where schedules are collapsing on portions of the line, or where buses are bunching up.” Previously, COTA defined its on-time service as being no more than one minute early to five minutes late. It has since been modified to zero minutes early to five minutes late.
Other service adjustments can be made to routes by tracking other data such as wheelchair cycles. “It could be that you are loading a wheelchair, which takes a bit more time to load, three or four times a week,” says Siemens VDO’s Bob Verplaetse, senior technical sales manager. Operations can use this data to build more time into a schedule if needed to provide a more defined service.
Vehicle data derived from AVL has also become a useful tool to help reconcile customer disputes regarding service. “A lot of times customers will call to say the bus was early, and we are able to go back and look and say, ‘No, the bus was on time,’” says Ocock. “It’s really helped with our credibility, to show our customers that we are running an on-time service.” Previously, the only way to test the on-time performance of vehicles was to put a supervisor on the route and spend half a day doing nothing but validating bus times.
The use of mobile data terminals with AVL systems plays a large part in making communication between dispatch and bus operators more efficient. In the past, drivers had to call dispatch on the radio and wait for permission to speak before issuing their request. Now, with the use of text messaging, this is done automatically. Communications from dispatch to all operators is also more efficient with the use of text messaging. “With data messages, we are able to target specific drivers or all drivers about an issue on a specific route, or if a bus stop is closed,” Ocock says.
Another benefit of using AVL systems is the monitoring and reduction in idling. Time Lines’ O’Brien says tracking idle time is key for his motorcoach operation to get a handle on reducing fuel costs. “When I did an ROI investment analysis of my AVL system, I found that if I can reduce my idle time by approximately 40%, I can pay for this [system] in a little over a year.”
Tracking interstate mileage and fuel usage is also important for motorcoach operations required to report the information for tax purposes. “The system can do a mileage summary report by state after each trip,” O’Brien says. “It’s eliminated half of the work for us.” He hopes that the capability to track fuel usage automatically will eventually be an option.
During emergency situations, it is crucial for bus operations to be able to pinpoint the exact location of their vehicles. With growing concern about the security of drivers and passengers, many operations are looking to equip their fleets with AVL systems. Today’s systems are equipped with an emergency alert button, as well as mobile data terminals for text messaging.
“If there’s an issue on the bus or a passenger causing problems, a driver who needs assistance has the ability to hit an alarm button that notifies the dispatch operation that something is going on and he needs help,” says Siemens Senior Project Manager Rick Borek. “This opens up a communication channel so that people in bus operations can monitor and hear what’s going on in the bus.” Borek’s company is installing its AVL system on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) BRT and fixed-route fleets. The Siemens system prohibits dispatch communication to the operator until dispatch has analyzed the situation.
AVL systems are also been instrumental in aiding with medical emergencies. “We had an operator who had a heart attack while on duty,” Ocock says. “Previously, we would not have known what was happening, or determine where he should be on his schedule.” In this case, the driver kept pressing the priority-to-speak button as well as the emergency button. “We sent police and emergency services out there, and they were able to save him.”
Another add-on to AVL technology is the capability to track vehicle maintenance issues on buses in real time — critical for a quick response that will have minimal impact on service. A timely response is especially important for operations with unique service challenges such as Boston’s MBTA, with its one-way streets and tunnels. “If you do have a failure in a one-way tunnel, then there’s only X amount of time to get that vehicle out before you have a logjam factor,” says Joe Cheney, MBTA project coordinator. “Through the GPS, if [a vehicle] does go down, we can send the proper personnel to that tunnel and not interfere with our service.”