Council-owned operator sets out a demanding specification that aims to stimulate new innovations from manufacturers and evolve vehicle design

 

reading_busesReading Buses has ordered Wrightbus StreetDecks for its 2016 vehicle intake

 

Council-owned bus operator Reading Buses has revealed how it intends to challenge the bus manufacturing community over the next three years with a specification document that outlines its wish list for future vehicle purchases.

Produced by John Bickerton, Reading’s chief engineer, he notes that while the passenger car industry has moved on over the last 25 years, the bus industry has not. “The Kia Pride was an entry level car and was panned by contemporary reviews as out of date,” says Bickerton. “Since then even base-model cars have gained spec, refinement, reliability, performance and efficiency.

“However, since the low floor bus was launched in the same year, the list is less impressive. Buses are now heavier, less efficient and more complex. Reliability is more subjective but the net effect of more systems without rigorous applications engineering cannot be positive. If a £250,000 car rattled as much after three years as most modern buses do then it’d be unsaleable. It wouldn’t be tolerated in a £10k car.”

Bickerton says that the bus manufacturing industry should not be defensive about these issues. Instead he argues that this is an industry-wide issue as a result of “the avarice indifference of operators who accept less than the best, and by manufacturers who tolerate high levels of warranty rework in the field as a cost of doing business”.

More simply he says that bus operators pay Ferrari money while manufacturers build in Ferrari volumes – but don’t make use of Ferrari materials to reduce weight. Instead, a glazed body is built on a third party frame and presented for sale as an integrated product “like the carrozzeria of the 1960s”.

He adds that the car market has moved on over the last 20 years and the integration, testing, refinement and technology of many of the features available in the average £25k car are informing Reading’s thinking about future vehicle purchases.

“If manufacturers cannot respond to these demands our products won’t compete with other modes, we will lose market share to Uber, PRT and the other emerging threats and very quickly they will take our business,” Reading’s chief engineer warns. “And if we don’t demand these measures we’re letting them.”

The municipal operator has been known over the years for pioneering a number of technologies, including the widespread introduction of gas vehicle technology. “Our volumes aren’t in a league of the major PLCs but we provide a highly visible showcase for the wider bus industry in the UK and beyond,” adds Bickerton.

It has led him and his team to draw up a new yardstick by which future vehicle purchases will be made – a detailed vehicle specification that will see each element measured against four ‘drivers for change’ (see panel below). It is these elements where Reading illustrates how it is seeking simple technology to create quick wins.

For the 2016 vehicle intake, some of these new features include sensing equipment in the upper deck tree protector that will detect impacts from trees or foliage, log the location and then transmit the information back to the operator in order to produce a hotspot map of locations with a high incidence of tree strikes.

Another innovation seeks to take step lighting required by law a stage further. “There is potential to extend the operator’s ownership beyond the step edge by projecting a welcome message onto the pavement outside the vehicle, improving safety for boarding and alighting passengers as well as boosting that ‘customer wow’ factor,” says Bickerton, adding that luxury cars such as the Range Rover Evoque can project customised logos from the wing mirrors. A more simple fix calls for destination equipment to be linked to ticket machine equipment, allowing a live list of ‘via’ points to be displayed depending on vehicle location.

There are also simple fixes such as larger litter bins (“meaning vehicles are cleaner in service”) and larger luggage pens. Bickerton says that few manufacturers have really tackled the need to hold shopping conveniently and where bags are firmly secured they’re often difficult to load or remove from the rack, particularly for elderly or infirm customers.

Continuing the idea of projecting Reading’s brand, the specification also calls for vehicles that are personalised for the operator, including logos on panels, on wheel trims and printed onto floor surfaces.

More high tech ideas include contactless charging points for smartphones that support this feature, indirect mood lighting and next stop information ‘designed in’ rather than looking like it has been retrofitted.

However, the draft specification for Reading’s intake of vehicles for 2017 is where some real innovations come into play. Bickerton suggests that while the company may not be ready for a “paperless bus service”, it would like to present its marketing messages using digital media, not only in the traditional ‘poster’ position behind the driver but also on cove panel surfaces. This system could be updated in real-time ‘over the air’ with the opportunity of advertising businesses in the area which the bus is passing through.

Technology also plays a part in plans for a heads-up driver display that would project contextual information such as vehicle speed ahead of the driver, avoiding the need to focus back on the real world. “This requirement would be retrofittable to preceding vehicles which are not equipped,” adds Bickerton.

Externally he suggests that LEDs could be embedded into panels or within moulding strips to illuminate the vehicle according to the colour of any given route’s branding.

By 2018, Bicketon suggests that manufacturers should be looking at introducing some form of guidance system for the bus stop manoeuvre, pointing out that this technology is becoming commonplace for parking in the car industry. Indeed, he notes that Active Park Assist costs just £850 extra for a Ford Fiesta. On this theme, he also speculates whether autonomous vehicle technology could be introduced for off-street depot movements.

“We are conscious that some of these requirements are specific to Reading Buses,” concludes Bickerton. “Those which can be applied to vehicles for sales into other customers are likely to be prioritised but we live in a world of personalisation, and our services on the street are not likely to be very different to those of most stage-carriage operators in the UK and beyond. These features would sell, and sell well, once they are proven in service, giving the best customer experience.”

 

DRIVING CHANGE

Customer ‘wow’
“First and foremost, we must deliver exciting and desirable products. The Apple iPod isn’t the greatest MP3 player, but the product brings an emotional connection which drives repeat custom. We must find a similar route to consistently exceed customer expectations if we are to succeed in changing the image of our industry and raise the profile of public transport.”

Flexibility
“This is a key driver for Reading Buses, who operate with a fully route-branded fleet. This constraint brings a dividend in revenue by delivering ‘customer wow’ and making the network easy to navigate and more accessible, but we must look at ways to balance (or tackle) this compromise to keep a flexible fleet while still delivering this differentiation between routes.”

Whole life cost
“Vehicles must be no more expensive than current best-in-class buses, measured across their whole life, and should show continuous improvement as the vehicles age and all parties gain more experience of operating. The residual value of the vehicle after 10 years is a key milestone for our business as we strive to maintain a low average fleet age.”

Safety
“This is a key part of our industry brand and should not be threatened, but the car industry particularly is blazing a trail. By understanding our customers and how they use our services we can implement ‘safety by design’ for ourselves, vehicle occupants, other road users and even pedestrians.”

 

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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