ARBOC Mobility invited its industry partners to the Butterfly Project; their recommendations resulted in more freedom of mobility for all passengers
By David Hubbard
ARBOC Mobility, Middlebury, IN, worked eight years to perfect its concept of the low-floor paratransit bus debuted one year ago. The Spirit of Mobility bus begins where minimum ADA requirements end; conceived to provide easy and equal access for all passengers, which certainly includes those using wheelchairs, scooters and walkers.
“This vehicle not only complies, it embraces the spirit and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” says ARBOC Mobility president, Jim Bartel. “We successfully met our own challenge to develop a rear-wheel drive, low-floor cutaway bus with an entry ramp and no steps anywhere in the passenger area; and we did it without relying on a drop-box transfer case.”
Built on a conventional GM 3500/4500 cutaway chassis, the Spirit of Mobility low-floor bus comes equipped with full air-ride suspension and a standard kneeling feature.
The entire concept focuses on the 39-inch-wide door the company developed to provide easy access for all passengers. A simple power Braun ramp accommodates passengers in wheelchairs through the same entrance.
Other standard features that differentiate the Spirit of Mobility include an integrated steel structure body on-chassis construction with full E-Coat corrosion protection, as well as the proprietary Bolt-n-Bond assembly process, which greatly reduces interior noise.
This past year Bartel has worked with his ARBOC Mobility team to spearhead the next iteration of the Spirit of Mobility bus through an effort he calls the Butterfly Project.
“The butterfly is part of our logo,” says Bartel. “We believe this icon exemplifies the freedom of mobility operators and passengers desire.”
The team says the challenge has been to identify and implement the subtle refinements that improve the paratransit application. The goal is to finalize the bus to the point everyone agrees is the best it can possibly be for people with mobility challenges.
“We originally engineered the bus for mobility access,” says Bartel. “In the process we also optimized the number of seats we could put in each model length and still provide the minimum number of ADA-required wheelchair positions.”
Bartel says The Butterfly Project changed all that. Now the guiding principle is Random Access, which in the new Spirit of Mobility makes room for three, four, five and six wheelchairs to maneuver easily inside depending on the model length from 21 to 28 feet.
“It is no longer about squeezing wheelchair passengers into a bus,” says Bartel. “Now it is how to best configure the usable space for the totally free flow of people moving on and off the bus.”
The Butterfly Project entailed making the best compromises, according to Bartel.
“Any one component may not be able to function absolutely at its optimum level,” he says. “But that item still contributes significantly to a better configuration of the package.” Noticeable changes over last year include a wider, longer, lower Braun ramp, now 34 inches wide and 62 inches long with a ground to floor level ratio of 1 to 6, which Bartel says is an industry best.
To this end in early July ARBOC Mobility invited a group of trusted professionals close to the project to Wixom, MI, to participate in a critical assessment of how the components mesh to this point, and offer recommendations for improvements based on their areas of expertise.
The company hoped its key vendors, suppliers and bus dealers could help verify the current design, which was fresh off its seven-year/200,000-mile Altoona durability test in January from the FTA Bus and Research Center, Altoona, PA. In that grueling exam, Bartel says the structure of the bus body held up with no reported failures, which further validates the robustness of the Bolt-n-Bond construction.
Among those present in Wixom were representatives from Freedman Seating, Braun, Velvac, Euramtec, Q’Straint, ProAir, Trans-Air, Air Lift, Twin Vision, CMI, the Scooter Store, Rosco and Variable Torque Motors, as well as ARBOC bus dealers that included Arizona Bus Sales, National Bus Sales and Leasing, Northern Bus Sales, First Class Coach Sales, Arcola Bus Sales, Tesco, Holland Bus Co., Leeds Transit Inc., Creative Carriage and Rohrer Bus Sales.
The group combed over the Spirit of Mobility low-floor bus, and each company spoke to its role in the Butterfly Project and responded to a questionnaire.
With the findings Bartel and his team went back to the shop to ready the next generation Spirit of Mobility for its September debut in Chicago at BusCon 2009 bearing the changes that resulted from this meeting.
Alterations based on their suggestions have been as simple as repainting the handrail stanchions yellow for better visibility and placing grab handles on the wall for wheelchair passengers to the redesign of component systems.
The more complex changes involved the implementation of the Xpress wheelchair securement system by Freedman and Q’Straint combined with an innovative system for storing the wheelchair tie downs proposed by Creative Carriage.
“The complaint was the former system was bulky and took up too much floor space,” says Jeff Meyers, ARBOC Mobility vice president, operations. “Our solution is a tidier revised housing that stores the securements.”
The Freedman seats feature the eco-friendly Nanocide™ Antimicrobial fabric from CMI and foam filling that employs a powerful natural antibiotic to fight off infection through the destruction of disease-causing organisms with no harm to human health.
“This was a worthwhile exercise,” says Bartel. “The input we received from our industry partners at this stage proved vital to further improvements we felt were necessary.”
A new twist in hybrid technology
In addition to the Butterfly Project, the invited guests had the opportunity to drive and evaluate a Spirit of Mobility bus equipped with a new electric launch assist hybrid system by Variable Torque Motors (VTM). This collaboration represents a break-through in system performance, weight and cost for the medium-duty bus market.
Ten years ago an idea for another type of hybrid electric motor design squarely struck entrepreneur, inventor and a founder of Variable Torque Motors (VTM) Larry Zepp, a man with 25 years of electric motor experience. The highly efficient and low maintenance traction motor he envisioned incorporates the VTM-patented magnetic field weakening method that pushes the rotating magnet rotor out of the stator coils, decoupling a portion of the magnets. The system slows the vehicle, reducing use of the brakes.
The hybrid-electric system Zepp designed is a launch assist system that attaches to the drive shaft and permits the vehicle to accelerate predominately on electric power up to 30 mph providing significant savings in fuel and emissions. The system stores and delivers generated electrical energy through the use of ultracapacitors by Maxwell Technologies.
A surprise in the business plan
The ARBOC Mobility business plan relied heavily on acceptance of the bus in paratransit and feeder route operation. However, separate from the present sales and marketing strategies and a surprise to ARBOC Mobility, the bus has caught the attention of a number of North American transit authorities from Calgary, AB, Canada, to Lubbock, TX.
“Because of the low-floor accessibility, agencies are considering the Spirit of Mobility for actual transit applications as much as paratransit,” says Don Roberts, ARBOC Mobility vice president, sales and marketing. “The features are ideal and the price enhances the seven-year, 200,000 mile life cycle.”
the Spirit of Mobility has garnered numerous contracts with bus sales and leasing companies throughout the United States and Canada, and one in Guam.
“These contracts have created a substantial order backlog,” says Roberts. “In a very short time span, the Spirit of Mobility bus is gaining tremendous acceptance and market penetration.”
ARBOC plays a vital role in the Spirit of Alexandria Foundation
Leah and Craig Bennett established the Spirit of Alexandria Foundation to remember their daughter Alexandria Bennett, the late granddaughter of ARBOC Mobility president, Jim Bartel. The foundation builds on the passion Alexandria held for nature in her young age. In cooperation with partners close to home and across the country, the foundation helps other children experience nature in the places Alexandria loved.
Alexandria’s Nature Buses are central to the mission. Bartel and ARBOC first developed the vehicles for use in Yellowstone National Park, WY, and as mobile classrooms for the Teton Science Schools, which has worked 40 years to connect children to nature through programs in remote areas of Greater Yellowstone. Many of the children in these areas have not had the opportunity to visit the ancient homes of their ancestors. Alexandria’s Nature Bus makes that possible.
Earlier this year the Howell Conference & Nature Center, Howell, MI, met with The Spirit of Alexandria Foundation to devise the second Spirit of Alexandria bus. Established in 1978, the Howell Nature Center provides wildlife rehabilitation and conservation education with their on-site and off-site programs. The center sees the nature bus as the perfect means to reacquaint children with nature. With the help of ARBOC Mobility and the many supporters of the foundation, the nature bus was completed and presented to the Howell Center at the Foundation’s Annual Golf Outing.
The Howell Nature Bus shows animals native to Michigan. The nature bus is available for any school to book for a classroom, and the foundation will provide grants for schools and teachers to experience the nature bus even in uneasy economic times.
The vision of The Spirit of Alexandria is to have nature buses as mobile classrooms across the United States in nature centers or state parks to connect as many children as possible with nature, and to help them better experience the world around them.