After being at the forefront of urban transit bus technology development for several decades, New Flyer has begun working on advanced driver assistance and automated bus technology.
The largest bus maker in North America was the first to come out with low floor buses and new designs for wheelchair ramps and is likely ahead of the market in all-electric buses, so it should not be a surprise that it is committing to a self-driving bus.
The company announced on Tuesday the launch of a new autonomous technology program, though it'll still be a few years before the technology is prevalent on the road.
Chris Stoddart, president of New Flyer's transit bus operations, said he thinks it will be 10-to-15 years before such vehicles will be in service on city streets in North America in high volumes, but it is clearly a technology development that is on everyone's radar.
New Flyer made the announcement the same day the autonomous vehicle unit of General Motors, GM Cruise LLC, landed a new round of financing that now values that enterprise at $19 billion. As futuristic as it may still seem to many, this is technology that is going to become a reality sometime in the not so distant future.
"There are the three main things on the technology road map for most vehicle manufacturers today," Stoddart said. "Electrical propulsion, autonomous vehicle and the connected vehicle and how it will be able to talk to everything around it."
The latter is referred to as V-to-X (or vehicle-to-x), an intelligent transport system where all vehicles and infrastructure systems are interconnected with each other.
It means that in addition to designing the sensors and cameras and radar systems and all the technology that will allow the vehicle to navigate, the New Flyer engineers are going to want to be able to have their vehicles communicate with stop signs and traffic lights and with the other vehicles on the road. That is something that transportation authorities all around the world are talking about with increasing intensity.
Stoddart said the main priority of the exercise for New Flyer is about greater public safety. It is also something that transit authorities across North America are starting to talk about.
Marco D'Angelo, the CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) which is hosting a symposium next week in St. John's on technology in transit, said transit riders are always looking for more sophisticated technology. He said it's good news for the industry that New Flyer is embarking on an autonomous vehicle project.
In the meantime, he said CUTA has already been talking with governments to lay the ground work from a public policy point of view as to what it will take for these types of vehicles to be on the roads.
D'Angelo said, "We have been working with our federal government partners and consulting with them on the development of a future regulatory framework that would address safety standards, data privacy and infrastructure needs associated with automated and connected vehicles."
He said he's happy that New Flyer has taken the lead in doing this kind of work which could prompt faster action on the regulatory side of things.
While Stoddart believes it's still a few years before New Flyer will be doing production runs of such vehicles, he said the next year or two will be crucial. The company has budgeted about $3 million for the first couple of years and hopes to be able to have a design that it can start testing and perfecting in a closed course environment.
"... so that when the time comes many years from now when we can truly be on public roads, the technology will be well proven," said Stoddart. "It will be a long journey. But there are ways to do some of that in natural stages."
For instance, he said, they may try to create an algorithm for when the bus needs to pull over and come to a stop within two inches of the curb which is something that could be automated but that would be initiated by a driver who would still be driving the bus.
"There are ways to progressively ease into these things as you get more comfortable with the technology," he said. "When you think about Smart Cities of the future and the infrastructure that has to go around it... in a nutshell vehicles are going to have to talk to everything."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Wednesday, May 8, 2019 at 8:43 AM CDT: Fixes typo