Wired buses monitor their own health, email for attention

Imagine how much better a job your doctor could do if your body sent emails every time a critical function like blood pressure reached an ‘alarm level’.

That’s the principle behind part of the City of Edmonton’s Smart Bus program, the final phase of which will see 500 more buses ‘wired’ by the end of the year, and sending real time information on their mechanical health back to Fleet Services maintenance staff.

Most people know smart buses are real-time trackable on smartphones, that they announce upcoming stops and maybe even that they’re equipped with video security systems.

Less visible is the fact that the buses’ engine control  module – and other functions – are now connected wirelessly through the City’s IT system, sending real-time mechanical process alarms back to maintenance staff.

This information – on functions like coolant levels, oil pressure, exhaust gas pressure and recirculation, fuel injection, exhaust temperature, crankcase pressure, and more – tells ETS when to pull a bus out of service for preventive maintenance before a problem results in a disruptive breakdown and/or a much more expensive repair bill.

“There’s nothing we like less than a breakdown, especially during peak periods. It’s a major inconvenience for riders, and it throws a real wrench into scheduling and service workflow,” says ETS project engineer Gurch Lotey.

“Heading off a mechanical problem before it results in a breakdown is a real cost-saver,” says IT’s Smart Bus project manager Karl Spiwek. “The parts bill alone for a major engine repair can run as high as $28,000.”

In just one case, the system alerted technicians to an overcharging alternator which, if not repaired, might well have caused a fire. Keeping buses in tip-top mechanical shape also saves big dollars in fuel consumption.

“These are early days, but we anticipate several savings,” says Fleet Services’ senior project engineer Graden Dej.

“Fewer breakdowns mean less costly disruption to our service and maintenance schedules.

“When maintenance is planned and proactive rather than reactive, it’s a lot less expensive. Savings of $500,000 a year are projected – once the whole fleet is equipped by 2018 – as a result of avoiding major repairs and breakdowns. Fuel savings are also anticipated, as direct feedback will enable operators to adjust driving habits.

The wireless system also connects onboard automatic passenger counters, in real time to ETS operations staff. When the system is activated in the future, it will enable ETS to make decisions about when to put extra buses on routes where current demand exceeds capacity.

Karl says the ultimate plan for the Smart Bus program is to send data as a real-time flow, rather than just when alarm levels are reached.

“Then we’ll build predictive models that track subtle changes in mechanical processes, or in combinations of processes, so we’ll be able to see when problems are in their earliest stages.”

In the meantime, the smart bus system’s vendors are working with City staff to refine ways of managing the vast amount of data they will receive from the system.

Gurch Lotey of ETS and Karl Spiwek of the IT Branch, members of the Smart Bus Project team.

Gurch Lotey of ETS and Karl Spiwek of the IT Branch, members of the Smart Bus Project team.

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