Thursday, September 8, 2011

The end of Buses?

Andrew D Atkin

Automated technology status:

Google has been successfully developing a fully automated car. Meaning total automation - no drivers. With their modified Toyota Prius they have clocked-up about 250,000 km to date, operating their car in urban areas. The only accident they have thus far had has been from another car driving into the back of them.

The key (current) challenge with developing a full-automation car is getting the computational requirements down, which as it happens are still very intensive. However, Google is meeting this challenge in an ongoing development effort whereby they are learning to compress otherwise unnecessary data. The latter is a somewhat tedious process, but it's inevitable that major refinements in software will be made. Certainly with their early computer programmes there will be much "crunching" that is not ultimately required. Of course, as computers become ever more efficient in themselves hardware will reduce this problem as well.

Here is a clip relating to Google's development:

A first application:

Even with a hefty computer in the boot we can see a first 'killer' application: Automated shuttle-buses.

The only reason why buses are so big is because we must cover the cost against the drivers. This concern is mostly eliminated with an automated system. A more ideal (and much more energy-efficient) vehicle size would be for about 10 people - not 40. It would mean more frequent and more direct services, faster and also much cheaper.

With improved popularity (compared to buses) is should cut significantly into car demand as well. This would be heavily reinforced if congestion charging were to be employed.

Suggested design:

I think a plug-in series-type hybrid would be ideal, using a small diesel-electric generator. It would be mostly silent in operation, have good handling with the lower centre of weight (due to battery ballast), and would be smooth running.

I would also suggest minor rear-wheel as well as front-wheel steering for convenient flexibility, as an automated system can exploit this to the full. It can make it much easier to negotiate a relatively wide vehicle.

A vehicle of this type would be very efficient and well suited to stop-and-go operation.

The following image is a best-guess ideal for an automated shuttle-bus. Three rows of three seats, with relatively generous spacing between the seats for a wide(ish) vehicle. You can do away with an aisle by having a door for each row, like a conventional car. The pay-off for doing this is generous seating space, faster off and on loading, and more immediate privacy for passengers.

Operating characteristics:

I would imagine that you could operate the system in the style of both a bus and a shuttle-bus. You can offer people a reduced fare in exchange for conforming more to the system (which basically means accepting walking to and from a bus stop, or another designated area), and a considerably more expensive fare can be paid for if you wish to have the vehicle come to you directly.

It should be easy to organise your trip from the internet, which provides us with a medium for highly flexible pricing systems.

Fares can be paid automatically with a pre-paid card like what is used in Wellington (New Zealand) buses today. Audio-intercom can be used if a human operator is required for anything, and surveillance cameras can be installed for security.


Fully automated vehicles can platoon. They can safety follow another vehicle from only a few centimeters behind, which increases capacity. Also of course, the shuttle-buses should operate with about 8 people at peak time, so should improve road capacity significantly alround.


How can buses and trains compete with this technology which could be deployed in maybe just a few years time (politics withstanding)? The answer is they can't - not on any level. And remember I am talking about the application of technology which has now been demonstrated. The truth is we can and will go much further than just automated shuttle-buses, in time.

Yet rail and [conventional] bus advocates are willfully deaf, dumb and blind to the motion of modern transport technology, and Auckland council in investing billions into a rail system that will be (and largely already is) a massive white elephant.

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