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.
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.
Today, what's of increasing importance and value to operators, says Bryan Cunningham, director of accounts management, INIT, is real-time passenger information. "Obviously, with all these iPhones and Droids, everybody's connected and that is a growing sector of the riding public nowadays," he says. "If they feel they can get good information about when a bus will be there, they tend be more inclined to use the service."
INIT's MOBILE-STOP system takes a mobile survey of all the data the vehicles collect and maps out with enhanced accuracy where the bus stops are physically located. For example, a typical software product with computer-aided dispatch software (CAD) and automatic vehicle location (AVL) will define a bus stop to be at certain GPS coordinates so it can plot it on a map on a computer screen, Cunningham says. "But the reality may be, for operational reasons, or if [a car] is parked in the way, that the bus doesn't actually stop where indicated. Usually it's significantly off by 15 or 20 feet, because it's easier for the bus and riders."
MOBILE-STOP analyzes all the data collected by the bus and, over time, helps correct schedules and actual stop locations, increasing system accuracy.
While INIT is currently developing Android and iPhone apps, Cunningham notes that many agencies are asking for the ability to provide their real-time data to developers so they can create their own iPhone apps on their websites. "Not just open source, but providing the right kind of real-time data," he adds. "You can open-source something but the transit authority always wants security. They want to put real-time information in a safe location [for access]. They don't want people having a way to get into their network and mess around."
Another popular INIT technology is automatic passenger counting. Since ridership information has a large impact on funding, agencies can use it to demonstrate an increase in ridership to justify more financial support. MOBILE-APC provides information to help transit systems evaluate where they have more traffic than they knew about before, or fewer riders in a certain area "They may consider changing their service; reducing stops or vehicles on one route; or adding a stop to another route, based on time of day, destination or year," Cunningham says.
Zonar Systems aim is not just to provide data, but to put it together in a way that makes it easy to digest and act on.
"Telematic systems can push a lot of data. Sometimes, I'd argue that it's a little overwhelming," Chris Oliver, marketing product manager, says.
Mike McQuade, CTO, Zonar Systems says that the supplier recently partnered with tool and diagnostics company Mitchell 1 Snap On to create Zonar Rx. Described by McQuade as the "Internet for maintenance mechanics," it's a repair solution that can explain a maintenance problem to the driver, and provide visuals and simple steps to help them repair it.
Zonar Rx reads data coming straight from the engine computer, Oliver explains. "It's connected to our servers, so it's [always] streaming that data to us in real time. A fault code takes place, our servers say 'Bus 123 just got fault code ABC.'"
When the bus posts a fault code about a broken oil sensor, for example, that data is sent to the back end, to Mitchell 1's repair connect software, which takes the make, model, year, VIN number and the fault code information and marries that against the knowledge the company has built over the 90 years they've been in business. "Fault ABC" means that the oil level sensor's going bad. Whoever is looking at the Web-based interface of the computer, sees "ABC means oil level sensor is bad;" a picture of what the sensor looks like; a picture of where it's located on the engine; a wiring diagram showing how to take it out and put the new one in; and some helpful hints from other mechanics.
Additionally, Zonar's Ground Traffic Control tells the operator how much fuel a vehicle burned in a specific area. Gathering analytics to assess fuel consumption is critical to put systems, controls and processes in place to mitigate fuel usage, McQuade says. It also measures how much greenhouse gas is proportional to how much fuel an operator consumes. "It's no longer enough to know how much greenhouse gas buses generate," he notes. "The next question is going to be where you made it. Was it in a one-mile radius of downtown Los Angeles, a five-mile radius, is there more greenhouse gas being produced by your transit buses in one quadrant of the city versus another?"
"Once you establish a baseline you can measure, you can improve on it," Oliver adds.
McQuade likens transit buses to the trucking industry, which Zonar also serves. "We just saved the City of Sacramento $60,000 a month in fuel," he points out.
To further enhance performance, Zonar's Z Alert system offers proactive push alerting. The customer sets parameters around key metrics, such as speed. Operators can, for example, request an alert any time a bus travels more than 35 mph, where the posted speed limit is 35 mph for longer than one minute. "If it does, then it sends them an e-mail saying bus 123 is speeding where it shouldn't be, and you told me to let you know," McQuade explains. "You don't have to run the report and wait. You know exactly when it happened and where, so that you can deal with it at the same time."
The trick to successful telematics use, Oliver says, is being able to get the information you need from the "tsunami of data," as he puts it. "That's what we pride ourselves on, making that as easy and seamless as possible."
[PAGEBREAK]Tips on Choosing Telematics
I NIT's Bryan Cunningham and Zonar's Mike McQuade offer advice on seeking out telematics products:
1. Survey other agencies. Transportation operators should see who has the technology they think they want, Cunningham says. He recommends contacting five or six agencies of different sizes that have deployed telematics. "Don't be afraid to call a New York MTA-[sized operation] and ask what it deployed, what it uses the most, the most successful thing. A lot of the large agencies will buy a ton of stuff and won't use much of what they buy," he says. "It will boil down to the five or six things the bus driver, dispatcher or mechanic uses...consider including those as part of the specifications in the RFP. Ask when they deployed real-time passenger information passenger counting and fare collection, which products worked and which were easy to integrate."
2. Ask about product integration/timing. When the telematics supplier gets involved and a transit operator is looking to buy a few pieces of its technology, but already has a few or plans to buy pieces from multiple vendors on one RFP, Cunningham advises asking agencies that have deployed them: Which would you deploy under the same RFP at the same time? Would you buy a scheduling system along with the CAD/AVL system or would you make sure you bought them separately? Would you buy the radio system and the CAD/AVL system together or separately? If you bought them together, would you do that again? What would you do differently? Lessons learned?
3. Invest time in vendor research. Call agencies that have deployed different vendors and feel out which ones you like, Cunningham says. When interviewing the vendors, have them visit your operation and do a presentation. "You're investing quite a bit of time. If I'm going to make a visit to an agency, I want to talk to someone from dispatch, IT and maintenance for a couple hours about what we have, how we do business, what they are looking for," he says. "If they talk to four or five vendors, it will take a lot of time."
4. Don't lean on a consultant. Often, transit operators rely on a consultant, Cunningham says, who helps ask the right questions about specifications, conduct the RFP process and evaluation, and decide what products to package together. "A lot of consultants have experience with all the vendors, so they can ask questions that the agency might not know [to ask]," he says. However, transit operators have a tendency to rely on the consultant and let them do everything, Cunningham cautions. Consultants play a heavy role in the industry, he admits, and they can be expensive. "Agencies hire them, get them on board, then realize they're expensive and don't have a good sense of what they want to do. Sometimes, agencies can't afford the pay for the consultant to attend firewall or technical clarification meetings and, then, finds themselves not understanding what's going on."
5. Use push alert data. Especially with new vehicles, McQuade advises. "They have such elaborate and exotic emission systems, [and] a transit bus engine or transmission is very expensive, so to be able to know immediately when [it fails] and call the driver to say 'Stop right there. We'll send a replacement out and tow that bus,' can be the difference between a few hundred dollars to tow the bus back into the garage and $40,000 to $50,000 to replace the engine, including labor. You want management by exception push alerting. You want the new generation, Web 2.0, otherwise, you're just looking through massive volumes of data. Your vendor should convert that data into actual information or you're really not getting the latest generation stuff."