The Nassau Inter-County Express bus system has awarded an $8 million contract for computer systems that developers say will make the fleet among the most technologically advanced in the world.
The new NICE Integrated System will use global positioning systems and other state-of-the-art technology to provide real-time information on the exact location of all of Nassau's 314 buses. Officials say that capability will help address many of NICE's most nagging problems, including late buses and malfunctioning onboard audio and visual announcements.
But one benefit in particular of the system designed by Clever Devices of Woodbury could transform the bus-riding experience for NICE's 100,000 daily customers.
"They no longer have to wait for their bus," said Joe Saporita, the Woodbury company's vice president of product development. "They can meet it at the stop."
Charlene Obernauer, founder of the Long Island Bus Riders Union, cautioned that the technology is not a panacea for all of NICE's problems. That includes crowded buses and insufficient service in some communities.
"Those are problems that are still going to come without increased investment in the bus system," said Obernauer, adding that she was "excited" about the NICE Integrated System, but "at the end of the day, it's not going to add more buses on the ground."
Customers will be able to learn exactly how far away their bus is through the system's mobile applications, website visits, text message or even electronic signs at bus stops. The system works like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Bus Time app for some New York City buses.
Knowing where buses are at all times will also be beneficial for NICE dispatchers, who will be able to take an "air traffic control" approach to operating buses, officials say.
Live digital maps at NICE's Garden City control center will display the exact location of every bus. Dispatchers could respond quickly to problems, including by sending out extra buses if some are running late or are too crowded.
Other features of the new system will allow NICE managers to remotely monitor bus mechanical systems, such as engine temperature, and count how many customers get on and off at each stop.
NICE chief executive Michael Setzer called the new system a "game changer" that will allow planners to make better decisions on service levels and schedules.
"Now they'll be able go to the database and have a 100 percent sample," Setzer said.
Clever Devices beat out bidders from as far away as Germany to win the contract, which is being paid through federal grant funding.
NICE officials said no preferential treatment was given to the Woodbury-based company, which started 25 years ago by recording audio tracks for casino slot machines. Clever Devices now specializes in transit technology and has developed similar intelligent bus systems for cities including Chicago and Washington.
"We've been providing state-of-the-art systems all over the country, and to be able to do it in your home city is really a big deal," said Clever Devices chief operating officer Andrew Stanton.
The NICE Integrated System will be installed in phases with most buses being equipped by the end of 2014.
Bus operators have expressed concerns about the new system, which will allow managers to track every move they make -- and the speed at which they make it.
Pat Bowden, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 252, which represents NICE drivers, said that on the heels of NICE's installation of video cameras on buses, she questions the company's motives.
"I think it's great for the ridership, but it's horrible for my drivers," Bowden said. "It's more Big Brother watching them. But there's no such thing as perfect."
Saporita, of Clever Devices, said it's not unusual for drivers to have reservations about the system at first, but most come to appreciate its benefits.
"All these things make for happy passengers," Saporita said. "And if you have happy passengers, you have a happy operator."
Among features planned
Real-time bus arrival information: Through GPS technology, riders will be able to find out exactly how far away a bus is. The information will be available on a mobile application, website, through text messages, and even on 28 digital signs that will be installed at the Rosa Parks Hempstead Transit Center.
Real-time bus monitoring: NICE dispatchers will be able to see the exact bus location and respond quickly to problems, including buses that are running late or overcrowded.
Accurate audio and visual announcements: NICE's existing automated announcement system relies on odometer readings to estimate the location of a bus. The new GPS-based system will pinpoint exactly where a bus is, and give reliable information to riders about the next stop.
Mechanical systems monitoring: Computers will monitor bus mechanical indicators, such as oil pressure and engine temperature, allowing managers to predict -- and take necessary steps to address -- a vehicle breakdown. It also will require a bus operator to perform some tasks before starting an engine, including checking the wheelchair lift.
Enhanced safety: The system will come with an emergency alarm that can be activated by a driver. It will communicate automatically with dispatchers, and provide a live audio feed from an onboard microphone.
Passenger counts: Using infrared beams at bus entrances and exits, the system will monitor ridership accurately, allowing NICE to plan service and schedules better.
Find a bus: One of the newest applications developed by Clever Devices will allow NICE to pinpoint the exact location of a specific bus inside a crowded depot of hundreds of buses, making it easier to address maintenance issues.