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Hi-tech buses could help with on-time schedule

By Erika Fricke Daily Planet Staff
Wednesday February 14, 2001

Twenty-four satellites in outer space send messages to earth. It only takes three of them to tell an AC Transit bus where it’s at. 

This month, after four years of plans, some of the buses will roll out of their main Emeryville station equipped with new technology to receive satellite communication. Although these first buses – about ten – may not startle patrons with their graceful techno-wizardry, it will be “totally unnoticeable to the public” said Jim Gleich, deputy general manager for AC Transit. Administrators say that by the end of the year all AC Transit buses will be receiving satellite messages from outer space, informing the central office of their exact location, and preventing the bus patterns that frustrate riders. 

Electronic messages will make any problems obvious, instantaneously. 

“Now they’ll be able to see on screens where all the buses are. They’ll be able to determine whether buses are running late, or early, if they’re all bunched up they’ll be able to see it,” Gleich said. “Everyday there are endless problems on the streets with detours that are either caused by some kind of utility construction or a fire.” These emergencies result in spur-of-the moment schedule changes or delays, that the central dispatch office in Emeryville may not know about.  

Currently, problems are spotted several ways. Ten supervisors split up the 400 square miles AC Transit serves and go out on the streets to monitor the bus lines, some of the 600 bus drivers may radio in difficulties, or riders may call in complaints. Satellite monitoring of buses will obviate the more clumsy forms of communication, said John Rudniski, operations technology administrator. 

“It’s analogous to an airport controller,” said Rudniski. “A controller can see every plane around the airport. A dispatcher would sit in front of a computer with a map of the Bay Area,” he said, and see icons of the buses moving in real time. “Everything’s verbal right now, if I want to know where someone is driving her bus, I have to call her.”  

Senior Transportation Supervisor Jim Cater said with the new technology, a signal will warn drivers when they are outside of the “service window,” with a minute leeway on either side, in which a bus is scheduled to arrive at a particular point. “The new system will help everybody be more attentive,” said Cater. In addition, the system will track each of the buses and their drivers and issue a 24 hour report that indicates all the buses that were operating outside their service windows.  

AC Transit administrators believe that new information translates into fast changes: bus drivers can slow down if they are ahead of schedule, the central office can dispatch buses to fill in, if buses are behind schedule, and the schedules themselves can be fixed to reflect the new information administrators receive about the way the bus schedule actually works on the ground. 

In addition to the question of timing and accuracy, administrators tout an improved emergency response time. Currently the bus driver may send an emergency signal to the central office. But when a report comes in, the central office must find the bus by communicating with the bus. If the driver can’t communicate, the central office must guess the bus’ location. “Right now in an emergency situation the operator has an alarm and we have to go by timetables to see where the bus is supposed to be,” said Cater. 

Under the new system, bus drivers can radio for help silently by pressing a button to signal the main control center. Because the satellites map the bus locations, help can be sent out immediately to the correct location.  

The new technology will be placed in buses gradually, after any glitches with the first test buses have been fixed. 

In order for the satellite mapping to function, all the components must be in order. Satellites send messages out to buses, telling them how far away they are from that particular satellite. The bus then combines that information with the distances from other satellites to find its exact location. 

The system works through a process called triangulation, a mathematical term that Rudniski simplified to the basics. “If you can picture the satellites like balls of twine up in the air, the distance from each ball of twine to the bus is represented by a length,” he said. “Those three lengths can only meet at the top of the bus, where the antennae is.” A computer server then polls each bus for its location – polling 625 buses takes two minutes – and repeats the cycle constantly re-mapping the buses. 

Luckily, dispatchers will not be required to learn the mathematical basis for receiving the communications in order to understand the positions of the buses, simple computer skills are enough to bring the AC Transit dispatchers into the satellite age. “You point and click, even to set up a radio communication,” said Rudniski. “It’s like Yahoo! Maps.” 

The federal government provided most of the cost for the buses in a $14 million grant for capital improvements. But Gleich spent Tuesday lobbying for more money from Congress. In addition to the funds for new buses, Gleich hopes to receive $2 million to promote the inclusion of real-time bus schedules along the bus routes, letting riders know how long they’ll have to wait for the next bus. The first shelters of this model will be along San Pablo, but with time they maybe expanded throughout the AC Transit line.