Cover Story: Wireless Revolution

A talking bus? Get up to speed on modern wireless diagnostics.


We’ve done stories here at Fleet Maintenance about vehicles that “talk” to the maintenance staff, but it’s always meant figuratively—the vehicles “talk” by sending fault code alert e-mails to the manager’s computer. Pretty amazing technology, that, but suddenly it seems passé, even old-fashioned. That’s because we’ve just been introduced to a vehicle that really does talk to the maintenance staff...

It’s a transit bus operated by Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), and it has the ability to announce, in a loud, clear voice—insistent but never pushy—that it has a technical issue that requires maintenance. And it’s never wrong.

How that WMATA bus, and a few hundred more like it, learned to talk is an interesting story. According to Joe Saporita, product manager for Plainview, NY-based Clever Devices, the company that builds the AVM™ (Automatic Vehicle Monitoring) system that makes it all possible, the need arose out of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which required both visual and audible bus stop, route and transfer announcements on buses.

“WMATA was the first installation of the AVM system, and they added some interesting enhancements,” Saporita says. “In Washington D.C. we added a custom feature where, when the bus pulls into the depot, when it’s in the fuel lane, the bus confirms that it’s actually at the depot being serviced, and it performs a series of checks to see if there are any active faults on that bus, and if there are it uses the announcement system to speak to the service technician and it says, ‘Maintenance action necessary.’”

You have to wonder if the first technician to hear that announcement fled the maintenance facility in terror, but today, seven years later, it’s positively old hat for WMATA technicians.

EARLY EVOLUTION

It was back in 1995 that WMATA was looking for a reliable method of communicating bus stop, route and transfer information to meet the ADA requirement. After a year-long test of several different products, WMATA chose Clever Devices’ Automatic Voice Annunciation System, and rolled it out in the 264 new buses they purchased in 1997.

“During the course of that rollout, Clever Devices was continuing to expand their technology,” explains Robert Golden, assistant chief engineer of vehicles—bus maintenance and engineering, for WMATA. “They discussed with us expanding the Voice Annunciator to include information on the performance and operation of the vehicle.”

In 1998, the first AVM system was installed on two buses, and then three more in 2000. By 2001, WMATA was so impressed with the data gathering abilities of the system that it became a standard installation on all new bus procurements.

“It was a back and forth, collaborative process between Clever Devices and WMATA,” Golden says of the pilot project. “Bus maintenance would relay to Clever what kind of information they were interested in tracking, and the system has just expanded and evolved ever since.”

ELECTRONIC HEALTH INSPECTION

“This all came about in an ‘off-the-record’ conversation with the people from Clever Devices. We’ve always felt here at WMATA—and this is common in the transit industry—that we over-inspect our vehicles,” says Phil Wallace, general superintendent of maintenance for WMATA. “We spend more time inspecting them, and not enough time is designated to the corrective action that’s required. And we wanted a tool that would wirelessly, invisibly—without having to touch the bus—give you an electronic health inspection of every vehicle when it comes into the service lane every night.”

Today, 627 of WMATA’s buses are equipped with AVM, and five of the Authority’s 10 depots have the “wayside” equipment necessary to download service information from those buses. And it’s all done, as Wallace says, wirelessly and invisibly.

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