Next Stop: The Cloud

Sorry, I had to do it. I’ve read a number of articles with equally cheesy titles telling me we’re only moments away from Smart Cities or Fully Connected Transport Networks where we’ll effortlessly glide between trains, buses and other forms of transport – I think I saw the first advert about 10 years ago – and all of this made possible by developments in engineering and IT, data networks and cloud computing. Whilst I’m sure progress is being made in this area, as a frequent user of public transport, I can’t always put my finger on where it’s happening! Uber is an obvious example of some new technology being used effectively to hail a ride – but in public transport, where is this more pioneering approach being replicated, and as a consumer, why don’t I feel engaged or feel like I’m benefitting from it?

At Vantage Power we take older buses and refit the diesel driveline with a hybrid driveline, making the bus more fuel efficient and less polluting. At the heart of our product is the battery pack and our telemetry system that runs via the mobile phone network. From the start, our system has been designed with a firm eye on providing vast quantities of useful telemetry data, and today we have the capability to stream data from our vehicles, store, analyse and visualise it within seconds. Having attended some forums by Transport for London and speaking with bus operators, some of the basic features we have today will offer immediate benefit to bus operations. We’re very excited by what we’ve created so far and wish to build on these foundations.

We can only begin to imagine what the future holds – and we try to, frequently! We know the new Mayor of London wants an expanded Ultra Low Emissions Zone - a large geo-fenced area where strict emissions standards are met. A geo-fence is a virtual perimeter covering a real world geographical area; when an object such as a bus, drives in or out of this area we can adjust its behaviour or performance. But why stop at one geo-fenced area when you can build many; around schools, hospitals or residential areas – and why look to only control emissions within these zones when we could affect vehicle speed, noise levels, provide more power when rapid acceleration is needed or provide alerts to drivers and cyclists when approaching accident black spots? Why not make your geo-fenced zones dynamic, shifting in shape and location based on prevailing conditions, or in response to seasonal variation or major events where pedestrian or vehicle traffic patterns are likely to fluctuate?

The ability of our vehicles to execute their instructions within these zones often comes down to power management – specifically priming the vehicle, such as pre-charging the battery before running in electric only mode. When trying to determine whether we can achieve the targets within these zones and what the risks are we need to weigh up the key influencers:

  • How many people are on the bus?
  • What are the weather conditions?
  • What are the traffic conditions?
  • What’s the drivers driving style?
  • What unpredictable events are going to happen on route? - this one is tricky to predict.
  • How much power can our battery hold and how far can it go? – this can be calculated.
  • How old is our battery and how has its performance deteriorated? – this can also be calculated.

So our ability to execute within these zones comes down to lots of different factors and we’ll get the measure of these from the start, using the data we’re collecting today to track, trend, visualise and understand how changes impact on power consumption. With time battery technology will change and improve, and as we adopt new technologies we will apply our learning and understanding in order to predict vehicle behaviour. Ultimately, one day the battery proposed will be of the correct size and cost that we can do away with the diesel engine and move to an electric bus, and that’s when the data we’re collecting today will really come in to its own. Being able to specify the correct size battery for a full electric route or fleet, understanding the risk of running flat throughout the battery’s life and knowing how that risk changes when, for example, the route changes, with seasonal variation or during irregular events.

Transitioning to an all-electric bus fleet is the easy part, but doing it cost effectively, maximising a battery’s life, preventing the battery from running flat en route and managing this risk on a per minute basis is what will make the transition a success.
So, I like to think, the data we’re collecting now can contribute to a more reliable more cost effective electric bus fleet of the future…but I still can’t answer my own question! How do we engage the users of public transport in this data revolution and how can they benefit from the huge quantity of data in the same way we can? – answers on a postcard.