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GPS for Buses

German researchers are working on a system which they hope will encourage more people to use public transport: A vehicle-independent and company-independent GPS navigation system for public transport, modelled on the way in-car GPS navigation systems work.

Named SMART-WAY, the system, still under development for a planned release next year, is an app for both the iPhone and Android OS based mobile phones, that utilises both the GPS networks as well as the phone's internal motion sensors to work out where in 3D space the user actually is, and which way they are pointed along with how fast they are moving – something which, ironically enough, most in-car GPS systems do not do.

The idea is simple enough, and as usual, the implementation of a simple idea is anything but straightforward.

If you are at position A, and you wish to get to position B, you tell the app that. It takes a look at where you are, and calls up bus and train timetables, attempting to find a match. It then finds the nearest bus stop or subway station that vehicle is due at, and determines if that vehicle has arrived yet – it networks with other devices using the system. If there's a person using it on that bus, the system can track that bus and determine where it actually is.

If the bus has passed the stop for example, it will dynamically redirect to the next available station with a vehicle due, and so on. If you miss a bus or train, it will work out when the next one leaves that will get you to where you wish to go – at that station or any others in the area. Helpfully it also tells you how to get to those stations if you do need to move – it is a GPS navigation system, after all.

If that wasn't enough, the system is capable of working with multiple changes. If for example there is no bus that gets you where you wish to go, but there is a bus that gets you partway, a train that gets you most of the way, and then a bus on a different route that gets you the rest of the way, and they all happen to line up time-wise (and there's no easier option) then the system will present that option to the user.

On top of that, as it is dynamic and actively works with the transport companies and city authorities (along with anonymous spies on individual transport vehicles in the form of other system users), the system can incorporate real-time hazards such as traffic congestion, accidents and roadworks into its computations, and plan around them. In fact, all it would take to monitor every vehicle a transport company runs, would be for the vehicle to be issued a smart phone running the app, to be kept in the driver compartment and registered to the system as being that vehicle.

A prototype of SMART-WAY has already been completed and the researchers hope to have a final version of the application ready to roll out across Europe by 2012. The first field tests are scheduled to be run in September 2011 in Dresden and Turin in cooperation with the local public transport operators. If successful, it will be rolled out across Germany, and then the rest of Europe.

All the information on timetables, connections and hold-ups in the network are supplied by the transport companies in real time, so they consume the cost of the system, rather than the end-user. They only pay a one-time fee for the app. After all, the end goal is to get as many people using public transport as possible, by taking the worry out of the system.


A mobile guide for buses and trains


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