The hands-free future of Bay Area buses

September 5, 2008 7:09:34 PM PDT
Imagine the double-take if you saw a bus driving down the street, while the driver had both hands off the wheel.

UC Berkeley engineer Scott Johnson isn't a daredevil, but he's letting a 60-foot long AC Transit bus steer itself to a bus stop on San Leandro's East 14th Street.

This is the first street test of a magnetic guidance system for busses.

Wei-Bin Zhang is the Project Director for PATHS, the Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways.

"So the bus knows where the bus stop comes up also the curves ahead the entrance exit all of the information is embedded in the magnets," said Zhang.

When the blue light comes on, it means the bus has found the directional magnets. The magnets are imbedded in the roadway about three feet apart.

As the bus travels, a bar underneath scans each magnetic field, feeding the information to the onboard computer and it tells the bus where to go and where precisely to stop. The driver can take manual control at any time.

"So it doesn't matter if you're in a wheel chair if you have a stroller or a walker, that door is going to stop right there," said Chris Peeples from AC Transit.

The cost for the system is estimated at about $15,000 a mile. The technology is funded by Caltrans and was developed by UC Berkeley's PATH engineers.

The goal is to make bus travel as efficient reliable and convenient as light rail but much cheaper.

PATH says high gas prices have helped boost ridership on Bay Area light rail systems by 12 percent this year, while bus ridership has only gone up about 4 percent.

AC Transit hopes that that this new technology coupled with other advances will help them attract more ridership.

"With dedicated lanes controlling traffic signals and speeding up boarding you pretty much control everything that slows a bus down," said AC Transit project manager Jim Cunrandi.

Use of this guidance system is still years away.


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