U and Metro Transit create TechnoBus to ease drivers’ jobs

Seth Rowe

University researchers have put together a bus that can almost drive itself.

The TechnoBus, developed to make bus drivers’ jobs easier, works by using a global positioning system and a mapping program developed by a University graduate student.

The system would enable bus drivers to use the 200 miles of Twin Cities’ highway shoulders designated for bus use during rush hours without having to worry as much about collisions, even in bad weather, said Steve McLaird, assistant manager of Transit Control Center Operations at Metro Transit.

Buses are nine feet wide, and the bus shoulder measures 10 feet wide, allowing only 6 inches of room for error on either side, he said.

A high-tech heads-up display system, similar to those used in fighter jets, provides virtual reality-type visual feedback about the bus’ position and nearby obstacles.

Here is how it works: A glass visor-like display is suspended in front of a driver’s face and a digital representation of road lines is projected directly over the driver’s view of the actual road lines. If the driver veers slightly to the right, for example, the right digital highway line changes from white to red, the driver’s right side of the seat vibrates and the bus automatically guides itself toward the center of the lane, accurate to within 2 centimeters.

The torque on the steering wh eel is set low enough that drivers can override the system if necessary by turning the steering wheel with a little more force.

Obstacles ahead in the road within 350 feet are outlined by a white box on the glass visor. When the bus is within three seconds of a potential collision, the box changes from white to red.

Radars have been positioned on some of the sides of the bus to detect other vehicles and to show an electronic representation of those vehicles on computer monitors near the driver. The driver can change views on the screen for a traditional-looking side mirror view or an overhead view.

The technology is reliable enough that Craig Shankwitz, associate program director of the mechanical engineering department, felt confident in waving at passing bus drivers with both hands during a demonstration on the University transitway Tuesday. The bus maneuvered around a sharp turn on the transitway without Shankwitz having to touch the steering wheel.

Although the bus is essentially able to steer itself, Shankwitz said, “it is not designed to be hands off, but if I go out of the lane, it will steer itself back.”

There has never been an injury accident in the Twin Cities when city buses are driving on shoulders, McLaird said.

The University will demonstrate the TechnoBus’ technology in late May during a national transportation convention in Minneapolis.

But the bus already draws stares from those who see it cruising around the Twin Cities during its test runs on the transitway and during rush hours on state Highway 252.

The bus is hard to miss, with its 3M-designed bright neon yellow reflective wrap, radars and the slogan “A BUSLOAD OF TECHNOLOGY” written on its sides.

The TechnoBus was created from an ordinary 10-year-old city bus donated by Metro Transit for the study. The Federal Transit Administration provided $400,000 of funding to the Center for Transportation Studies, a partnership between the University and Metro Transit.

The purchase or creation of the technology in the bus cost approximately $40,000, according to Shankwitz. He said that if the technology was mass-produced, the cost would probably lower to approximately $4,000.

Some of the technology, such as the heads-up display, is already on use on five snowplows in Minnesota. The University has been testing some of the technology for use in state patrol cars and ambulances.

“We’re trying to find the best practices for all modes of transportation and share the information,” McLaird said, listing possibilities with trains, charter buses and semitrailer trucks.

He said local buses are not likely to have this technology for a few years and only will if Metro Transit determines the technology is cost-justified and makes sense.

Seth Rowe welcomes comments at [email protected]