Mobile Technology Trends in Transit Agencies: Q&A with Passio Technologies

We recently sat down with Jim Dempsey, Panasonic Mobility Enterprise Business Development Manager and Scott Reiser, CTO of Passio Technologies to discuss mobile computing trends in the transit industry.

Q: What are the day-to-day operational and business challenges that transit agencies are faced with today and why?

Scott: Capturing and accessing relevant data, such as information about ridership trends, on-time statistics or operational issues and maintenance requirements is still challenging for many organizations.

Of equal importance, is having a means by which to quickly analyze that data and use it to make more informed business decisions.

Ongoing budget and funding shortfalls offer another challenge for many entities. Shortfalls mean that there may not be enough funding to purchase needed equipment to maintain or expand service levels. This in turn puts additional stress on the maintenance department, which than has to work overtime to keep a system running.

Jim: Public transportation ridership is on the rise, up 37 percent since 1995 according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).  As ridership increases, transit agencies are looking at their existing infrastructure and saying, “How can we make the system and our employees more efficient?” and, “What types of new technologies should we consider that can help us achieve these goals?”

Are mobile solutions playing an increasingly important role with your transit customers? How are they being used?

Scott: Yes, mobile devices are incredibly important to our transit customers. For example, we have recently deployed a mobile solution that is mainly used to track buses and helping to inform customers of when their bus is estimated to arrive. Everything is becoming mobile, the so-called “Internet of Everything” is truly everywhere. We’re seeing a trend within many agencies wanting to expand the use of mobile technology. They need flexibility with mobile device capabilities, information on bus locations and insights that help improve operational efficiencies. Again, the challenge here is to do more with less on the same budget. That’s why solutions tailored to help solve a specific business or operational issue are so vitally important.

 Jim: We’re seeing new technologies being used to help transit agencies improve the ridership experience and achieve more efficiencies from an operational perspective.  We’re talking with a lot of customers who still have drivers using pen and paper. They are very interested in using a tablet or mobile handheld device that allow the drivers to focus on performing important quality control and safety checklist prior to starting their route as well as other functions during their route. This then means faster turnaround times leading to improved productivity and better customer service.

What are the key software applications that are available to help transit agencies best leverage these devices? What business and operational benefits do they offer?

Scott: Many of our clients are looking for applications that improve the passenger experience as well as help them make informed decisions. This includes GPS tracking, passenger counting, customer feedback, and tools to help with resource allocation. Transit systems are also looking for a platform that can grow and adapt as their needs become more complex. Perhaps they only need a basic passenger counting solution today, but tomorrow they will likely need to tie in with the maintenance department or offer a customer feedback loop. Given the perpetual struggles with budgets and funding, they are looking for a system that can be expanded as their needs evolve.

Jim: Any new technology investment must include systems capable of evolving and growing along with customer needs and use cases.  For mobile devices, easy integration with existing software applications is critical.  One of our mutual transit customers is using Passio’s vehicle tracking and passenger counting software loaded on our Toughpad FZ-X1 Android handheld tablets.  Our early discussions with them focused on what our combined hardware and software solution could do today, but also what applications and capabilities we could support down the road. Our ability to evolve and adapt based on customer needs played a key part in the product evaluation and procurement decision.

What are some of the challenges transit agencies face in the use and management of mobile devices?

Scott: Every agency wants to be more mobile, but they often struggle with how to operationalize it. For example, entities often attempt to use consumer-grade electronics in an operational-grade environment. That simply doesn’t work, and in the long run, will cost them more than if they just invested in the correct hardware on the front end. There are also questions about how to power and charge devices and who is responsible for the devices in the event of theft.

Jim: Any mobile device that is used in a vehicle, particularly buses that may be in near continuous operation are subject to environmental conditions that a typical consumer device cannot handle. Issues as simple as battery life can impact usability because drivers are out in the field for the duration of their shift and need to stay connected for up to 14 hours at a time for productivity and safety reasons.  If a device requires charging during a shift, a driver can swap out the battery for a new one without powering down.  Asking drivers to use and be responsible for multiple devices is a challenge.  A device needs to offer enterprise grade hardware security, the communications features of a handheld, and the robust capabilities of a tablet in a rugged design.

 How important is mobile device durability?

Scott: It’s vital. Without it, your system will never run at 100 percent. Lack of durability opens the door to questions about the system’s operational reliability and even the accuracy of the data that a system is collecting. This may also give drivers an excuse not to do their job. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time until the entire system fails. The right solution needs to be mobile, rugged (to survive the harsh environment), and have the processing power to maximize the available technology.  When corners are cut to ‘save’ a few dollars, transit managers who gravitate to consumer grade hardware quickly realize that their technology investment fails to provide the expected returns. Their equipment cannot perform well when exposed to extreme heat, cold, vibration, moisture, and constant handling, which is typical in the transit world.

 Jim: Transit agencies need technology that can weather extreme environments and a purpose built device with rugged design is critical.  Environmental conditions in the transit environment include near constant vibration, extreme temperature fluctuations, impact and shock from drops, altitude and extreme humidity to name a few.  Panasonic Toughpads are engineered and built specifically to withstand the harshest conditions.  For example, our Toughpad X1 handheld goes beyond MIL-STD-80G specifications to assure reliability in the field.  They are tested for drops of up to 10 feet, fully sealed against dust, and are submersible for up to 30 minutes so they can withstand the drops and spills that are responsible for the majority of device failures.  In addition, drivers need a device that will operate reliably even with gloves on and a touchscreen that functions in the bright sun, cold or rain.

What kind of feedback have you received from your transit customers that are using the Passio/Panasonic solution for their day-to-day duties?

Scott: The feedback has been great.  Employees want a reliable device that makes their job easier. For example, employees need a device that works with gloves on. This simple but important capability makes them feel like they are working at a technologically advanced agency. When employees have the right tools, they have more pride, and we are likely to see an increase in performance as a result. Our transit operators have multiple responsibilities for meeting schedules, safe operations, and passenger customer service. Frustration and lack of participation surfaces quickly when technology isn’t effective, or becomes too complicated. It is critical that the hardware and software work effectively together, and most importantly, assist the operators and employees with meeting their work objectives in a timely manner.

Jim: Our handheld tablets are purpose-built with field workers in mind.  We understand the day-to-day challenges they face and deliver mobile computing technology that is engineered to provide the performance, security and rugged reliability in extreme environments—where typical consumer devices will fail.  This helps transit agencies advance to meet increased customer service expectations and ensure their employees have the right tools for the job.

Where do you think the transit industry and associated technology is headed over the next 12-24 months?

Scott: Our goal is to anticipate integration and connectivity. There is a demand for measurable data that allows agencies to make better informed decisions about their operations. “Big data” remains a bit of a buzzword and unfortunately, many agencies are implementing technology that doesn’t solve their problems long term. The key is to always find the right combination of software and hardware and to implement a solution that helps solve a problem and achieve a goal. Everything else is just a distraction.

Jim: The transit market is changing rapidly and many agencies are in the process of upgrading their infrastructure to address a growing population of riders who depend on public transportation, particularly in highly populated urban areas. In order to support this rapid growth, transit agencies are looking at new technologies that can provide better insights into how transportation services are being used, data about ridership trends, route usage and other information. Accurate data will improve operational efficiencies that reduce costs and improve the ridership experience.