A NEW LOOK @ TRANSIT TECH
Automatic Voice Annunciation – the future made simple
BUSRide spoke with Brandon Curtis, executive managing director at Aesys, about the benefits of Automatic Voice Annunciation (AVA).
How does AVA benefit passengers and drivers?
Brandon Curtis: AVA automates on-board passenger announcements, which not only keeps passengers up to date automatically, but also helps create buses with enhanced accessibility for low-vision and hearing-impaired passengers through audible announcements and text on the OBNSS (On board next stop sign).
Automated voice announcements alerting passengers to upcoming stops are coordinated with LED signage on board the bus to help all riders travel with increased convenience and independence. The system is fully automated, freeing bus operators to concentrate on driving and the other myriad tasks requiring their attention.
What about the early days – before
Curtis: Prior to onboard GPS location systems, vehicle location was very different than it is now. In Seattle in the late 1980’s, for example, sign-post technology was used. Approximately 200 locations were designated relative to the number of routes that passed the proposed sites as well the frequency and quantity of vehicles. Each site had one transmitter and a corresponding identification number; the ID number is all that was transmitted. Each bus was equipped with a receiver. The agency would then drive the routes again and again, measuring odometer pulses to establish the number of odometer pulses for each route. As the bus got closer to the sign-post transmitter, it would use RSSI, (receiver signal strength) to determine the point at which the bus was likely closest to the sign-post transmitter. When the bus pulled away from the transmitter or site, an onboard computer would readjust the odometer pulses for the next known sign-post transmitter on the route.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, AVA was first introduced. For the benefit of low-vision passengers, drivers are required to announce each bus stop manually. After it was clear that bus drivers couldn’t be effectively mandated to do this, the idea of AVA began to gestate. At that time, it was becoming feasible to use GPS. Technology had advanced, and there were more satellites in the sky than ever before.
How does AVA work in a digital world?
Curtis: Onboard computers are either equipped with built-in GPS units or they draw GPS coordinates from an external source. In a typical “smart bus” scenario, route information is loaded into the bus’s computer. The smart bus is typically loaded with the route information for all routes in the system. Keep in mind that the smart bus is a vehicle that can operate without communicating to a central system. The vehicle “knows” the route it’s supposed to run, and it knows when it has entered a given zone of geographic coordinates that will trigger an automated announcement and/or a text message on the OBNSS.
Is the advancement of GPS technology making AVA better and/or more affordable for transit agencies?
Curtis: To a large degree, GPS has been touted as a sort of “black magic” by providers – but the wizard behind the curtain has been revealed by technology like the iPhone, where users can enter an address and quickly triangulate it with their own geographic coordinates. It’s just not that hard anymore to be accurate with GPS. Why should I be able to do that at a low cost with a smart phone or TomTom, while the same task with a bus costs agencies and taxpayers many thousands of dollars per vehicle?
Many technologies are reaching a breaking point, beyond the legacy systems that have traditionally occupied this space. Where these technologies were once complex, they’re now incredibly user-friendly. Providers are challenged to justify high costs while also making their products more usable.
What is being done to reduce costs?
Curtis: We’re working on releasing a fully-automated stop announcement system that will cost around $2,000 per bus. It uses text-to-speech, which is a technology that’s become highly advanced in recent years. The programming software has become very easy-to-use. Furthermore, by using text-to-speech the cost of the audio is much lower, the relevant data maintenance much easier and the file that has to be uploaded to the bus is considerably smaller. This, coupled with Wi-Fi, makes the data nimbler and gives transit agencies more freedom to adapt and tailor the AVA to their needs and potential wants.
Most AVA tools being circulated around the transit industry are very complicated; especially if an agency wants to use it for anything but stop announcements.
We’re hoping to change that. The programming software package is very simple, to the point where it will allow agencies to program any geo-code they want, whenever they want for whatever they want. This will simplify stop announcements and also allow for new ideas. For example, agencies can use the AVA system as a tool to advertise local businesses close to a given bus stop, or tie any message to any GPS trigger as well as meet the requirements for the ADA community.
This is the kind of idea that can help agencies fund themselves and make their systems easier to use, while opening up potential funding sources to benefit the taxpayers who pay to use that agency’s services every day. It doesn’t get more simple than that.