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Buses Need Autonomous Technology, Experts Say

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(MetroBus) CoverageWith all the talk about self-driving cars, there has not been enough attention given to the idea of applying collision avoidance and mitigation technologies to public transportation systems, write Greg Lindsay and Anthony Townsend for Quartz. Mass transit is still using technology and business models from the 19th century, despite “near historic highs in ridership.” Buses have been undergoing a renaissance worldwide because they can be a more efficient way to get commuters to and from their jobs than either cars or trains, Quartz writes.

Two researchers from Princeton University recently authored a study that applies automated collision avoidance and mitigation technology to mass transit. Jerome M. Lutin, New Jersey Transit’s former director of planning, and Alain L. Kornhauser, head of Princeton University’s transportation program, found that if buses equipped with such technology were able to keep a following distance between them of 6 feet (“well within near-term technological capabilities”), the bus lanes in the Lincoln Tunnel, which connects New Jersey to Manhattan, would accommodate more than 200,000 passengers per hour — more than five times the number of bus commuters the tunnel currently accommodates per hour, Quartz writes.

In their study, Lutin and Kornhauser note the challenges and risks of driving buses in cities:

Driving a transit bus in an urban environment is a highly skilled and demanding profession. In addition to maneuvering a 40 to 60 foot (12 to 18 meter) long, 25 ton (23 tonne) vehicle in heavy traffic, which demands constant vigilance, drivers must administer a sometimes arcane fare system, navigate dozens of complex routes and schedules, monitor passengers, respond to stop requests, and serve customers as knowledgeable and pleasant representatives of the company.

Handling that kind of driving for hours on end induces fatigue and stress, and mistakes are inevitable. When a bus driver makes a mistake, the results can be highly visible. Even worse, bus driver mistakes can be deadly. Industry-wide for 2011, there were 57,000 reported bus crashes, resulting in 13,000 injuries and 244 fatalities. (1)

The study authors refer to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2013 preliminary policy statement on automated vehicles. The statement defines Level 2 automation as technology in which at least two primary control functions of a vehicle are designed to work at the same time, relieving the driver of control of those functions. The authors offer as examples adaptive cruise control and lane centering.

There is no Level 2 collision avoidance system commercially available for buses, although these are available in cars, the authors note. And although they say that further research and prototyping would need to be done, the authors suggest that buses be designed so they are prepared to eventually have the automated systems installed.

Buses with automated technology would help to resolve many of the problems of cities, such as pollution from automobiles,  traffic congestion, and even “unemployment due to the absence of [mass] transit,” writes Cynthia Shahan for Clean Technica. Urban sprawl and inadequate mass transit isolate people and make it hard for them to get to where the jobs are, Shahan writes.

In a comment to the Clean Technica article, Jouni Valkonen writes:

Actually not just self-driving buses, but self-driving and self-charging electric buses and trucks will transform transportation. With electric transportation, variable costs are close to zero and robots do not mind about frequent charging breaks.

Image by Chad Kainz

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