Through a combination of an intensifying focus on efficiency, Bus Back Better, the Direct Vision Standard and services ramping up as the UK emerges from lockdown, the bus and coach sector is undergoing a big transformation. Powertrain technologies are evolving rapidly and, as we explored throughout March, fleets are transitioning to alternative forms of propulsion. However, motive power is only one source of fleet efficiency and safety benefits.
“There are a lot of old legacy systems in place,” explains Jay Biring, chief technology officer at Exeros Technologies, in reference to the challenges needed to overcome when rolling out technology-led solutions to the bus and coach sector. His company recently revealed a new passenger counting (APC) system which is empowered by AI and showcases the efficiency benefits that can be brought to fleet, route and timetable management.
The company’s APC has already been installed by Somerset Passenger Solutions (SPS) to collate data pertaining to the travel of workers to and from Europe’s largest construction project: Hinkley Point C. The solution features 3D sensor technology based on the Time-of-Flight principle (timing the distance between the lens and subject from multiple points to draw a 3D image of the object which, in a public transport environment, can differentiate between passengers or bikes and luggage, for example), providing data that Biring describes as being “between 97-99% accurate.” AI enables the forensic use of this data to adapt the service offering to suit.
In the case of SPS, which transports thousands of workers to the site, having monitored passenger travel patterns, AI enables the analysis of data to optimise vehicle frequency and routes. “Big challenges were posed by the need for an agile routing platform – routes can change daily and buses can use 10 different stops a day,” explains Biring of the complex issues needed to overcome by the world’s first AI APC system. “AI looks at the routes and works out what is happening and when, whereas beforehand a human would need to input and assign data. AI removes this need and eliminates the risk of error. The system is about driving efficiency – not over or under-running vehicles. SPS needs to adapt its capacity depending on Covid risk – APC enables quick decisions to be made based on data intelligence just a couple of clicks away.”
The breadth of capability enabled by strategic use of AI has also been further showcased by Fusion Processing, who developed the country’s first SAE Level 4 (human presence required only for safety reasons) autonomous bus demonstrator utilising the technology developed as part of the CAVForth project: an Innovate UK-funded pilot also including Stagecoach Group, Transport Scotland, ADL, Edinburgh Napier University, Bristol Robotics Lab and the University of the West of England. The company even trialled the bus at what was billed the UK’s first autonomous bus depot –Stagecoach’s Sharston site – and carried out an autonomous trial across the Forth Road Bridge in 2020.
Of the project’s potential and immediate benefits that can be brought, Fusion Processing CEO Jim Hutchinson, said, “As well as providing autonomous systems, Fusion Processing will provide spin off projects from the technology that can help today’s manual driven buses, such as tech that can recognise pedestrians and cyclists and warn the driver, automated emergency braking and replacement of external mirrors with advanced vision systems.”
Biring, too, is in no doubt as to the immediate safety benefits that can be leveraged, referring to government figures that show that over 85% of road collisions are caused by human error.
“You can reduce those accidents caused by human error to 2% by giving the driver just two seconds’ warning of approaching hazards,” he said, explaining that fatigue is the most dangerous factor and pointing to technologies such as its modular CCTV platform that can eliminate blind spots to enhance road safety and protect fleet managers’ assets, including drivers. In fact, Exeros reports that customers confirm an up to 90% improvement in driver behaviour and an 80-90% drop in accident frequency and cost.
As has been demonstrated in the work with SPS, when you consider that systems such as APC can help analyse service requirements, AI provides a tangible opportunity to tailor bus services in a number of ways. The benefits could be particularly evident in more rural areas where AI could analyse usage data to more effectively optimise route and vehicle utilisation – helping to make public transport a more viable option regardless of postcode.
As Darren Eaton, SPS commercial director explained, “As the Hinckley Point project and our fleet continues to grow, this new upgrade to our valuable transport service will enable us to optimise service frequency and adjust vehicle capacity in a very timely manner based on passenger demands.”
If AI can help optimise route and fleet efficiency, and help gradually introduce enhanced autonomous functionality, it could provide the tools to navigate the route to net-zero.