The team at Optibus has developed a fleet resource planning and scheduling solution that it believes will define the future of transit operations around the world.
We spent some time with Optibus co-founder and CEO Amos Haggiag to dig into the origins of the solution, what makes it tick, and to get a better idea about how it is helping transit operators manage their fleets today.
What Does Optibus Do?
Optibus is a cloud-based solution that brings intelligence and the power of cloud computing to fleet resource planning. In plain english, that translates to a web-based tool that gives fleet operators the tools to balance their vehicles and drivers across their schedule to achieve the lowest cost, most efficient fleet possible. Amos shared that, “everything we’re doing is around optimizing transit.” The solution is most obviously applied to transit and school bus fleets with predictable time tables and customer needs but Amos shared that it works equally well for, “any company that moves people around with large vehicles.”
Having said that, he continued to share that, “most of our clients are transit agencies.” Transit agencies have the most to gain due to the high capital asset cost of transit buses and the large deployed fleets they tend to manage. “We have a platform for planning everything that has to do with the movement of vehicles and drivers in the field.”
The solution operates much like the complex supply chain planning tools used by manufacturers around the world in that it takes into account the cost per hour of using assets, the objectives of the fleet manager and the penalties for not achieving objectives. For example, a transit bus driver may work 8 hours in a typical work day, but a fleet manager could allow them to work up to 10 hours per day, with the 2 extra hours being assigned a penalty for the extra overtime pay required. The system has the ability to take this into account and create the schedule that achieves the fleet manager’s goals – like lowest cost of operation, least amount of overtime, highest asset utilization for buses, etc.
It is worth mentioning why cloud computing is an important part of the Optibus solution: performing all of the calculations in the cloud means fleet managers are not tied to a fixed amount of computing power. Many of the ‘what-if’ scenarios are mapped out as part of acquiring new fleet vehicles – but that computing capacity is not needed on an ongoing basis. The cloud allows Optibus to scale up computing power during these periods of heavy analysis, spinning up another 100 virtual instances of a server, if needed…then scaling back down to a more moderate computing level that can handle day to day operations.
Amos shared that moving the solution to the cloud was a game changer, noting that, “The optimization systems that are out there used to run all day. You would put all of the variables in the system and set it up to run. You would run it all day and after that, if you didn’t like what you got, you would have to change things and let it run for another day. The Optibus system runs very fast,” and allows customers to run scenarios that would have taken hours in a matter of minutes. This increase in frequency drastically improves the utility of the tool and allows for much more fine tuning of models than was previously possible.
Optibus’ proprietary algorithms were also key in reducing the amount of time required to solve problems. “Most of the algorithms in the industry are generic and can solve any type of problem. Our algorithm cannot solve those problems.” Optibus built its algorithms in-house to ensure they were the best at solving the transportation and resource problems they were looking to solve.
Help Transit Operators Plan Technological Transitions
On top of this base functionality, Optibus can help fleet operators simulate and model the impacts of bringing new technologies into their fleets, like electric buses. Want to add 10 electric buses? What range do you need? Where should the chargers be located? What charge rate do I need each charger? Can I buy 1 400kW charger instead of 10 slower 50kW chargers? Which charger will be the most cost effective for electricity? When should I charge my buses?
These questions only scratch the surface of the work required to add electric vehicles to a fleet of internal combustion vehicles, and with little to no experience with electric buses, many transit operators are ill equipped to spec out their requirements for adding electric buses to their fleet.
Optibus heard this from customers early on and responded with new modeling functionality that allows fleet operators to simulate multiple ‘what-if’ scenarios, even going so far as to optimize the solutions for the fleet to achieve the best result. Amos related that in developing the solution, the Optibus team found that, “How to add an electric vehicle into an existing city is one of the challenges facing transit operators today” and that, “it is becoming a very complex problem, even for a computer.”
The solution not only takes the specifications for a particular electric bus into account, but also looks at the charging options available and works to optimize the type and location of chargers for the network. Amos shared that, “if you operate a mass transit network in a given city, we will tell you how many chargers you will need, where the chargers should be.”
Charging is the start, but ultimately, when electric vehicles charge and the rate they charge at dictates the cost of the fuel they’re pulling down. “Electricity costs change throughout the day significantly. So you naturally want to charge when the electricity cost is cheapest, but it’s not always feasible. You take all these problems together and its a very complex problem to solve.” Optibus leans into the power of cloud computing to give fleet managers the tools needed to optimize the new vehicles being added to the fleet before they even arrive on site.
Help Electric Vehicle Manufacturers Design Solutions For Customers
The capability to model the integration of electric vehicles into a fleet is not only helpful to fleet managers, it can also be an invaluable tool for electric vehicle manufacturers looking to more accurately communicate the benefits and impact of new vehicles to prospective customers.
Companies that can more accurately show customers the benefits of their technologies have a leg up versus the competition, making it that much more likely that they will lock in a deal. Amos shared that, “Companies will compete against each other to win that business. Using Optibus, we can do the most efficient plan so they can provide the winning bid.”
On the customer side of the equation, they seem to love the large visual display that represents the heart and soul of the Optibus solution. “What’s nice about the visual representation that looks like a gantt chart is that someone who knows what they’re looking at can see at a glance a lot of data.”
“The challenge is to put a lot of data into a form that humans can understand,” and Amos shared that their customers have a lot of glowing feedback about the solution. Ultimately, the solution makes it easier for customers to do their work, and “We are in a unique position to allow our clients to run their business more efficiently,” Amos shared.
The Autonomous Future
Living at the cutting edge of transit technology, I asked Amos about how autonomous vehicles will impact transit. He shared that, “One of the nice things about what we do is that we can see the cost of everything.” The data makes it clear that connected, electric autonomous vehicles have the potential to flip everything we know about transit on its head. “Driver costs can be up to 80% of all the operating cost of operating costs at a transit agency.”
Amos shared that he sees the cost of the driver being the big driving force behind transit agencies looking to autonomous vehicles, “The first thing that will happen with autonomous vehicles in transit is that the cost will decrease significantly. I think the fear is that jobs will be eliminated.” It is a natural fear, but he sees the industry going a different direction.
Much like Automated Teller Machines – or ATMs – did for banking, Amos sees autonomous vehicles driving the cost of transit down so far that agencies will then be able to add many more buses to the schedule, increasing the utility of the overall system. “The first thing that it does is a good thing – it reduces cost. That won’t directly mean more profits. The first thing that will happen is that it will improve service. Public transit is already very cheap so I don’t see it getting cheaper. The frequency will improve.”
On the back end, all those autonomous buses will still need to be maintained, software will need to be programmed and new buses will need to be purchased. The work doesn’t go away with autonomous vehicles, it just changes.
“We are definitely here to be the main system that will manage anything to do with mass transit. We are not there yet but we will be there at the end.”
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