Powering ahead with technology

Technology continues to evolve apace, particularly where alternative means of propulsion are concerned. It is a fact that is neatly illustrated by Northern Ireland-based Wrights Group’s recent announcement of a multi-million-pound five-year deal with Skeleton Technologies.

Driveline, ticketing and back-office innovations all play a role in tech developments in the bus and coach sector. Steve Banner reports

Under the agreement the latter will be supplying the former with graphene-based ultracapacitors for use in its KERS-enabled (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) hybrid buses.

A key advantage of ultracapacitors, argues Skeleton, is that they will last at least 7.5 years with a potential life of 12 to 15 years. That compares with just four to five years for a lithium battery, it adds; a contention which battery manufacturers would doubtless dispute.

Fitting them to a Wrightbus double-deck instead of lithium batteries enables it to carry at least another three passengers, Skeleton adds – ultracapacitors are a lot lighter than batteries – as well as helping to cut fuel usage. While ultracapacitors do not have the ability to store energy for as long as batteries do, they can release it quickly when it is needed: to boost acceleration when a bus is tackling a steep hill for example.

Another new technology making its presence felt in Northern Ireland is Van Hool’s diesel-electric Exqui.City 18m articulated tram bus. Powered by a Cummins ISB 6.7-litre diesel married to Siemens hybrid technology, it has just gone into service in Belfast under the BRT (Belfast Rapid Transit) Glider banner.

The 30 Gliders link East Belfast, West Belfast and the Titanic Quarter over a 12.5-mile route via the city centre. Moving away from bus stops in zero-emission electric mode, each of the artics can carry 106 passengers.

Embracing hybrid technology means reduced emissions, a priority for all operators given the tougher restrictions being imposed by many local authorities.

While retrofit emissions control systems that will take buses to Euro 6 are available from a variety of suppliers, solutions for coach operators remain worryingly thin on the ground although Eminox is awaiting final accreditation of a retrofit system which would enable Euro 5 Volvo B9Rs to reach Euro 6.

Returning to the Exqui.City, Van Hool makes the point that the platform it uses is designed to accommodate a variety of different types of propulsion, including fuel cell and compressed-natural-gas hybrid. This versatility means that it could be deployed on longer routes if needs be which take it deep into the suburbs or out to airports beyond city centres.

How best to tackle trips that extend even further – tours of the Scottish Highlands for instance – in an environmentally-friendly manner is a question likely to be increasingly asked by coach operators. Scania believes gas is the answer, and unveiled the world’s first gas-powered long-haul coach at the recent IAA Hanover Commercial Vehicle Show in Germany.

Running on liquefied natural gas, the Interlink Medium Decker offers a claimed range of over 600 miles.

Technological change is of course having a massive impact on the way in which buses and coaches interact with passengers and with other road users. That is especially the case when it comes to methods of payment so far as passengers are concerned, with m-ticketing – using a smartphone to prove entitlement to travel – becoming increasingly popular.

Ticketer has recently installed more than 5,500 contactless electronic ticketing machines for First Bus which allow passengers to pay using contactless plastic or smartphones. One consequence, says Ticketer, is a fall in fraud thanks to the machine-reading of QR codes.

“You can’t fiddle a QR code,” observes chief executive officer, John Clarfelt. “It either works or it doesn’t.”

He believes that there will be a move in favour of tap-on/tap-off. This involves passengers being charged for however far they have travelled without having to say where they want to go and pay their fare when they board.

“You can tap-on/tap-off with plastic or a smartphone,” he adds.

Both technology suppliers and operators will have to react to rising interest in demand-responsive transport, Clarfelt believes. “What the industry will be saying to drivers is ‘here is your running board, but it’s based on people’,” he says; in other words, the customers that have got to be picked up.

Ticketing results in the production of reams of data as do many of the activities related to bus and coach operation; and most of those activities require software to manage them.

That software is increasingly likely to be cloud-based. That is the case with the new web-based version of Omnibus’ OmniTIMES, its timetable creation software.

A cloud-based version of OmniDAS, the company’s depot allocation system, should appear next year. “The aim is for everything we’ve got that is suitable to go into the cloud,” says managing director Peter Crichton.

That might not include OmniSTOPdesign, which enables the creation of eye-catching bus stop displays. “It’s not used by a team of people, but by a single specialist instead, and it’s a graphically-intensive piece of software,” he points out.

“I should stress that customers will not be obliged to go cloud-based with any of our software if they don’t want to,” he adds.

Omnibus has been introducing more powerful algorithms into its packages which make it easier for operators to play ‘what if..’

“You can for example quickly find out how many buses you will need if you decide to run a particular service every 10 minutes rather than every 20 minutes,” he says. “One thing we’re planning to do with CrewPLAN is to allow operators to say things like; ‘The maximum duty time is five hours. If we tweak it to five hours and ten minutes, then what sort of cost saving might we make?’

“We’ve got this as a working prototype, and we should be able to introduce it in the not-too-distant future,” Crichton says.

A difficulty some operators face is dealing with data from a variety of different sources and the need to pull it into one location so they can look at it quickly: ideally on a tablet so that it can be viewed 24/7.

Road transport compliance software specialist Aquarius IT’s ClockWatcher Elite software allows users to manage their tachograph data should that be relevant to them as well as the results of driver walk-around checks; and ensure that any defects found are rectified. It helps managers keep abreast of their maintenance records, check the validity of driver licences and track vehicles should they need to as well as offering a variety of other facilities.

A key difference between the way in which buses and coaches are operated today and the situation that prevailed 30 years ago is the extent to which they can be tracked using telematics systems and their drivers and passengers kept under observation.

Driver behaviour monitoring systems such as those produced by MiX Telematics can record whether a driver appears to be accelerating and braking too harshly, taking bends too quickly, or speeding. HD IP – High Definition Internet Protocol – CCTV cameras from companies such as 21st Century can capture pin-sharp images of passengers committing offences which can then be produced as evidence in court.

HD IP cameras remain comparatively expensive however. As a consequence some operators use them to monitor key areas on the vehicle – the passenger door for example – while relying on analogue cameras to keep an eye on everywhere else.

Any DVR – Digital Video Recorder – must therefore be capable of taking feeds from both. Timespace’s current product portfolio includes the R500 DVR, which boasts four HD IP and four analogue inputs.

It is also encouraging operators to make use of its LANLink remote monitoring software. They can use it to check that all their onboard CCTVs are working.

Drivers who fear that big brother is constantly watching them should be aware that cameras can protect them too. A thug may think twice about assaulting them if they are aware that they are being watched, while front-facing cameras installed by SmartDrive and its competitors – Aquarius IT can offer a solution – which trigger if the vehicle suddenly brakes heavily or hits something can help them put their side of the story.

A car driver who claims that a bus heedlessly smashed into them may in fact have swerved into its path deliberately as part of a crash for cash scam; and the camera footage will show the incident was not the driver’s fault.

What is more, the footage may be put to another use; as evidence if the car driver is subsequently prosecuted for attempted fraud.