Reducing traffic congestion with buses that could drive themselves

Until spending some time behind the wheel of a bus-driving simulator, I’d never rolled a vehicle [knock wood]. Apparently eighteen-ton buses don’t like to take interstate exit ramps at high speeds, even onscreen.

The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority’s bus simulator in Burnsville, Minnesota, is used to train bus drivers to operate the Bus 2.0 system, which employs a host of technology to assist drivers in piloting buses in the Twin Cities region’s narrow bus lanes (a.k.a. the shoulders of highways).

Since 1992, buses in the area have been allowed to run on the shoulder to avoid traffic slowdowns. According to Craig Shankwitz, director of the University of Minnesota’s Intelligent Vehicles Laboratory, the region has more miles of bus-only lanes than the rest of the country combined. The Bus 2.0 program began running passenger service in October 2010. The automated assistant makes it easier to keep a 9.5-foot-wide (at the mirrors) bus in the 10-foot-wide shoulder lane. After all, six inches is a minuscule margin of error when you’re piloting a 37,000-pound (empty), $400,000 vehicle full of paying customers past gridlocked traffic.

“We know that we’ve beaten congestion with the buses on the shoulders,” Shankwitz says, “but it becomes difficult to use the narrow shoulders during bad weather. With our system, weather no longer matters, and passengers are provided really reliable service.” About ten percent of the MVTA’s approximately 115 buses are Bus 2.0s. Efforts have been made to expand the reach of this program to places such as Houston and San Diego.

At its most basic level, Bus 2.0 is a lane-guidance system. It consists of a dual-frequency, carrier-phase differential GPS (with an accuracy of five centimeters at ten Hertz); a two-axis optical sensor referencing the road surface; road-map databases of the vehicle’s route; laser scanners; and three modes of driver feedback: graphical (a head-up display), tactile (a vibrating seat), and haptic (suggestive torque through the steering wheel). It takes about $100,000 worth of equipment to convert a regular city bus to a Bus 2.0. That might sound like a lot, but Shankwitz emphasizes the fact that the system uses existing infrastructure to keep traffic flowing, Minnesota winters be damned. “And it’s a lot cheaper to implement than light rail,” he points out. Shankwitz also notes that it vastly reduces the number of sideview mirrors that are broken off buses running on the shoulders; over a typical bus’s twelve-year lifespan, that equals a savings of some $12,000.

These buses are actually capable of driving themselves, but they’re a ways from that reality because of legal and reliability concerns. The same technology is used to operate snow plows in Alaska, where weather often renders drivers blind but this instrumentation can allow a driver to safely guide the truck and avoid collisions, even in zero-visibility conditions.

Clearly, the world that Jamie Kitman warned about in his recent column entitled “Car and Driverless” isn’t so far away. Personally, I’d love to see more automation in mass transit and freight vehicles—hopefully allowing me to remain solely at the controls of my own personal car.

Photography by Rusty Blackwell, Bob Armstrong, and courtesy of the University of Minnesota

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