Making technology work for operators

Zero-emission electric buses do not have to be fitted with batteries. They can be equipped with supercapacitors instead, argues Belarus-based bus builder BKM.

Electric fleets are beginning to influence the development of new apps and systems to support operations. Steve Banner reports

A new name to British operators, it displayed an electric 12m single-deck 18-tonne E4200P urban bus at the recent Coach & Bus UK show which relies on the latter rather than the former. Able to carry over 80 passengers, it was exhibited bearing Nottingham City Council’s logo, and was about to go on trial in Nottingham at the time of writing.

A key advantage of supercapacitors, says BKM, is that they last a lot longer than batteries.

“They can withstand as many as 90,000 charging cycles,” says a company spokesman. “Batteries have a short life by comparison.”

Furthermore, they can be recharged in no more than five or six minutes.

On the downside, their lack of energy density compared with batteries means that a vehicle powered by them will have a limited range. BKM’s bus can travel no more than a dozen or so miles before its supercapacitors, which discharge energy quickly, have to be recharged.

That need not be a problem, argues the manufacturer, if opportunity charging points are dotted around a city so that the supercapacitors can be replenished with energy whenever the bus is stationary.

It is an approach that avoids the necessity of recharging electric buses in a depot for several hours overnight. Equipping a depot that has operated diesels for several decades with the infrastructure required to support electric vehicles in this way instead is an expensive undertaking.

Both approaches could be combined however, with opportunity charging used to allow battery buses to cover higher daily mileages.

“As things stand the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of an electric bus is higher than that of its diesel and diesel-electric hybrid equivalents,” says Chris McKeown, chief engineer at Go-Ahead London. “If you can increase the mileage then you could reduce the TCO so that it is close to the same level, or below.”

No matter how buses and coaches are propelled, operators need the latest software to help manage them. Such software is increasingly being made available as a cloud-based package.

Omnibus for example is now offering its timetable management system with integrated mapping on that basis as well as its Depot Allocation System. The latter allocates vehicle and crews in line with service requirements and helps ensure that hours worked and payments are recorded correctly.

Roeville has recently updated PHCloud, its cloud-based coach hire and contract booking and scheduling package.

It allows businesses to manage quotations, bookings and driver/vehicle allocations from a smartphone or tablet. This means that executives can still run their companies when they are at home at the weekend, or by the swimming pool on holiday.

Software is now being developed with an eye to running electric buses as efficiently as possible.

INIT has developed MOBILE-ITCS, which tells operators how much charge each vehicle has got left in its batteries along with its remaining range. The aim is to avoid the risk of buses running out of power before they have completed their duties.

All buses eventually need to return to their garages, and garages are sometimes sold by one operator to another. When that happens, the software that manages the site may have to be changed too.

That is what happened in Greater Manchester when First Manchester sold its Queens Road depot to Go North West.

As a consequence Omnibus was asked to enhance the current scheduling system and introduced electronic bus service registration software, transferred the previous operator’s data and provided user training.

“Omnibus’ solutions are already used elsewhere in Go-Ahead, and its software has played an important part in Queens Road’s transition to Go North West,” says interim managing director David Cutts.

Drivers should never be neglected, and some of the technology now being introduced is making their lives – and those of their employers – much easier.

Distinctive Systems has come up with an app for coach drivers suitable for iOS and Android devices which allows them to view a list of bookings that have been allocated to them.

On selecting a booking drivers can view all the details, and can then be guided step-by-step through each stage. When they are ready to get going they press a button to confirm they are setting off, then press it again at each pickup and when they reach their destination.

With each press the app records the time and location, and updates the display with the details for the next stage. The times are automatically written back to Distinctive’s Coach Manager private hire and contract booking package.

A key advantage of the app, says Distinctive, is that it alerts Coach Manager if the driver is late setting off.

That gives the operator the chance to find out why, and take appropriate action. That is far better than getting a call from an irate client demanding to know why the coach hasn’t turned up.

Businesses need to be able to communicate with all their employees, and modern technology helps them do so swiftly and efficiently; and without using up reams and reams of paper.

Aquarius IT has added Document Management System to its ClockWatcher Elite software which allows information covering areas such as disabled access, first aid and manual handling to be distributed online to all concerned. Furthermore, it can check if employees have opened the documents they have been sent, and if they have spent sufficient time reading them.

Passengers have to be kept informed too, points out Navaho. It is continuing to develop its mDIS – modular Display Information Solution – which uses onboard screens to display the route, journey time, This Stop and Next Stop information and safety announcements.

Interchange and connection information can be shown too along with weather updates and advertising messages.

Software that is used to manage drivers could of course be redundant – possibly along with many of the drivers themselves – in a few years’ time if buses become fully-autonomous.

Scania and Daimler are among those manu‑-facturers busy fine-tuning the necessary technology, while Britain’s first full-size autonomous bus made its public debut at the Coach & Bus UK show.

The ADL Enviro200 11.5m single-deck bus has been developed in conjunction with Fusion Processing. Five such buses will go on trial next year with Stagecoach, on a 15-mile route between Edinburgh and Fife which crosses the Forth Road Bridge.

Not that the Enviro200 is entirely self-driving. It has instead been built in line with SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) Level 4.

Compliance with this standard means that a vehicle can operate autonomously under certain conditions – in city centre bus lanes, for instance – but must have a driver present at all times ready to intervene if necessary.

Get Level 4 to work satisfactorily, and build public confidence in it, then SAE Level 5 – which means complete autonomy – may not be far away, with CCTV cameras giving security reassurance, and barriers controlling access to the passenger saloon opened and closed using electronic ticketing.

In the meantime drivers are required, and technology is continuing to make their lives and the lives of other road users safer.

SmartVision, which replaces traditional exterior rear view mirrors with cameras, is now being rolled out in the UK by 21st Century and is in service in London with Metroline. A split-screen monitor in the cab shows the normal view plus a wide-angle view.

Far smaller than traditional mirrors, the cameras reduce aerodynamic drag, thereby improving fuel efficiency, and are far less likely to get broken or injure other road users, says 21st Century. They automatically adapt to counter the effects of rain drops and dirt on the lenses, it adds, adjust to reduce glare from direct sunlight and headlamps, and deliver clear images after dark.

A built-in heater keeps them clear of ice and snow in the winter and stops them fogging up when the weather is humid, 21st Century states.

Ever-clearer images whose veracity even the slipperiest barrister will find difficult to dispute if an incident comes to court are now being delivered by onboard CCTV cameras. This year’s Coach & Bus UK show saw Timespace Technology set up cameras linked to a big screen so that visitors could see just how clear footage can be.

What happens if the CCTV stops working? Timespace’s LANLink can keep an eye on a fleet’s cameras so that problems can be identified quickly and prompt action  taken.

Not to be outdone, 21st Century is busy promoting the Journeo remote condition monitoring system. It too can watch over the health of onboard cameras, is installed in over 2,000 vehicles, and can now operate on a cloud-based platform.

Journeo Edge can manage video downloads and includes a secure evidence locker, with user-defined retention periods. Footage can be remotely requested, downloaded and shared among authorised users using cloud technology, which means it is always accessible.

Something else Timespace was promoting at the show was its Bridge Alert device which warns drivers if they are approaching a bridge that is too low for their vehicle; probably because they have detoured off their usual route for some reason.

Traffic commissioners are taking an increasingly dim view of operators whose vehicles collide with low railway bridges in particular.

The bridge is likely to suffer damage, rail services may be disrupted as a consequence, and a double-deck jammed under a bridge will disrupt local highway traffic too. Above all however there is the risk that passengers on the top deck will be injured in the collision, potentially seriously.

If an accident of any kind occurs that results in injury or a fatality then the authorities will want to know precisely what happened. In response, Continental Automotive has come up with UDS-AT – an incident recorder or onboard black box.

It saves key data such as the speed the vehicle was doing at the time the incident occurred, whether the brakes were applied, and if the driver indicated or not. The evidence it holds could spell the difference between a driver being convicted of the offence of dangerous driving; or exonerated.

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