In a previous article I’ve talked about the past of the transit agencies. It is time to get to the point. Why is this article mixing up GPS and horse-drawn carts ? Because transition is hard to be made. Evolution is about survival and if traditional transportation companies want to stay in business, they must adapt and evolve.
Competition is healthy for the local economy, but competition is hard, too. Today, new business models appear every day. City cabs considered their market as a monopoly. Then came Uber and everything changed. I would like public transportation to stay in business, and go to the next level, a place where new value is added, and new experiences are shared.
Information as a key factor
Today, people are consumers of information at every level. Some say the average modern man learns every day more than the total knowledge it used to acquire during his whole lifetime two centuries ago. In only one day!
After such a lengthy introduction, I’ll get to the point. Bus stations used to provide timetables as printed sheets of paper glued on a post. After all, early day bus stops started as a simple post, long before they had a roof. This was good for 1953, for 1977, for 1989, but it is no longer true today.
Today, people want to know how much thy have to way until the bus arrives, and they want the information to accurate to the minute. This is possible, thanks to the technology invented in the past: the GPS, the wireless communications, and the electronic display. All these used to be very expensive in the past and all these are coming very cheap today.
This is the most expensive part of the system. A rectangular orange led display, 30 by 50 cm can cost from $100-$300, depending on the manufacturer.
Past GPS devices used to cost hundreds of dollars, they were big ugly boxes and the position was given with a precision of 50-100m. This is no longer true. Today it is possible to buy a single UBLOX GPS module for $10, and the device itself has a precision of 5-10m, which is more than enough for a bus 10m long. The bulk price is even lower.
The communication device
We have the position, how do we send it to the headquarters ? By using wireless data communication, of course. Traditionally, data communication has been the business of telcos. The bus company used to buy one or two year data plans using GPRS or 2G/3G with fees going up from $50 per year. For small companies it is a cost they cannot afford. Even with machine to machine technology it is still not the cheapest technology.
Fortunately, the wireless spectrum had some public free frequencies. New technologies, like Ultra Narrow Band (Telensa or SigFox) and LoRA (Semtech) came into existence. These technologies are by definition cheap. Some come for free, after an initial investment.
Today it is possible to buy a LoRA module for $3-$5.
The brain of the embedded system
The GPS and LoRA modules cannot work alone. They need a host system. There comes Arduino. Hosting motherboards start at $50.
The price of the system
So far we have seen that an embedded GPS system with real-time tracking can cost as low as $60. The displays in the station start as $100. Well, there are additional operational costs, but I won’t talk about them in this article.
Company Alpha has 1000 buses running on 50 lines (20 buses each), serving a big city of 2 million inhabitants, with 3000 bus stops. What would the cost of real-time GPS be ?
Cost of embedded real-time GPS trackers: 1000 buses x $60 = $60,000
Cost of real-time displays: 3000 x $100 = $300,000
Total cost of the system : $360,000
A final word
Am I too optimistic ? I don’t know. Some people told me that price is an issue, that such an equipment cost too much. I intend to build the system, just to see how much I can lower the price.