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Auto-piloted buses fight Madrid traffic

MADRID -- Auto-piloted buses that communicate with each other could make for safer roads.
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Written by Jennifer Riggins on

MADRID -- First Wi-Fi for the passengers to stay better-connected. Now, Madrid buses can use GPS to talk to each other.

Last week, a public transport bus drove around Madrid on autopilot. This was possible because of a communication center that receives and sends out reports on traffic and road conditions to sensors found on both cars and buses.

The automation and robotics center of the Spanish Council of Advanced Scientific Research (CSIC) has been conducting research on traffic patterns. They realized that most traffic jams are unavoidable because traffic coverage is usually delayed and drivers, especially the often-disconnected bus conductors, do not know about traffic until it is too late and they are trapped in it.

The GPS sensors react and notify other drivers based on information like hard braking, as with a fresh accident, and prolonged waiting periods, as with being stuck in traffic. For instance, if one bus detects traffic, it can then send this information to the central communication system. Then, management can decide to send a message out to other buses with the same affected stops to see if they can avoid this particular stretch of road or warn passengers that they may want to alter their commute for just one day. Likewise, once an ambulance moves or an accident is cleared up, a signal can be sent that the route has re-opened.

This new pattern of communication could make for a safer drive for the moving buses and for the stopped emergency vehicles and police officers redirecting traffic.

This system will be one of Madrid's first significant uses of WiMAX, which should provide wireless Internet to the entire fleet of EMT buses. It would also use the radio wave communication system already in place.

Active bus passenger Christina Santos isn't too sure about the prospect of an auto-piloted bus. "I like having a person carrying the weight of the driving," she said, but could be open to the idea of it, if it were like airplane auto-piloting.

Santos says she absolutely prefers to take the bus over the metro or train. "Even if it takes more time, I'll take the bus. There's something about, once you choose a seat on the bus, you don't have to transfer." She said she likes that buses do not have "throngs of people like on the Metro. It's less intrusive. And when you live in a big city you take personal space when you can get it." She also said she embraces "the possibility of conversations with little old ladies," the ability to observe the Madrid landscape (especially with Christmas in full-swing here,) and, now that she has an iPhone, she takes full advantage of the free WiFi.

The Madrid buses are actively trying to compete with one of the world's best subway systems. The public bussing sector EMT did this by last year deciding to maintain full service, while the metro systems held a massively disruptive month of unpredictable partial, half and full strikes, in reaction to civil servant salary cuts. EMT took this as a moment to reintroduce Madrileños to public transit above ground.

EMT was the first Madrid public transport that made WiFi available on all their lines. They are also making moves for eco-friendliness with two completely electric buses--M1 and M2, which run shorter routes in the center of the city. They are also piloting minimum consumption, sustainable lines, with bus 129, which has a longer route, beginning in Plaza de Castilla, the heart of the business district.

Buses may sometimes seem to be a more retro mode of transportation, but the Madrid bus system is clearly driving innovation in the world's public transit industry.

Photo: CSIC

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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