CyberTech Rambler

July 24, 2012

Computers and buses do not mix

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 1:51 pm

About two years ago, StageCoach in Cambridge bought a large batch of double decker buses to replace their single deck cousins in Cambridge. Overall feedback is their drivers like them because they are easier to drive. As a passenger, I like them because they quality of the interior is better. Unlike their previous mix bag of buses of different age, (some which give you the jitters with the screeching noise they make when the driver press the brake), they improved the quality of their service.

As someone with immense interest in computers, I did have a misgiving: They were too computerized. All the  gauges are virtual instruments on a LCD display in front of the driver (except a few mission critical ones that are still real instrument). I predicted that as the buses get older and need more maintenance, the computer will be in the way of providing a bus service to the people of Cambridge.

That is happening now. Guess what is the bus drivers’ solution? Stop, wait for 2 minutes and restart the engine. That itself is not much different from what they did with the old buses, with one caveat: They think they are doing this to reset the onboard computer. In 99 out of 100 cases they will be right. However, right now I have an additional worry: They start to think that almost all the problems they have is the fault of the computer and do not spend enough time to work out whether it is  false alarm or they have a real problem. That, has implications on road safety.

The incident that led me to this worrying state of mind is what I had observed with my bus trip yesterday. The driver noticed that he had a problem. Before taking us up he stop and restarted the bus. Then, he took us on but stopped again a few bus stops away. This time, he called the depot. Although it was not the stop that I want, I figure it is close enough to walk the distance instead of waiting for him to get instruction from the depot. Up to then I was thinking it is yet another false alarm triggered by the computer and thought nothing about it.

As I was walking down the street, the bus caught up with me. It stopped at a zebra crossing. There is where I noticed strange noise from the bus. It sounds like low pressure air leak. Furthermore, it sounds like this happen when the driver applies the brake. I believe the driver is aware that there is a problem with the brakes, since he stopped and was testing his brakes, causing a queue behind him in the process.

What I am not sure, and hence the reason for the post, is whether he thinks he has a physical problem or it is just a false alarm from the on board computer. It is not easy to hear the strange noise from the brakes because it was at the back at the best of time, let alone peak time traffic. The engine noise would had drown the hiss so the passengers would not had noticed as well.

Here is my worry: As a society, do we tend to blame the computer if anything goes wrong in a way we don’t with old fashion gauges and warning lights? If so, it is a serious cause of concern for me.

I must admit I made a mistake yesterday. I should had tell the driver. I didn’t. I assumed he knows and will take the bus out of service at the nearest possible place which is a bout a kilometer away. He cannot stop at the location he tested his brake because he would cause a traffic jam. There was on going traffic and I was afraid they might knock me  down if I spoke to the driver. I should had informed him about my observation to give him a fuller picture of the problem, if he had not notice it.

If you think I am blaming the driver you are wrong. He acted properly. He did exactly what I would if I noticed a (potential) problem. If he haven’t aware of what the real problem is he is certainly taking steps to find out. Even if he knew, I am not sure taking the bus out of service is the correct decision. Most importantly, at no point did I feel unsafe for myself or the passengers still on the bus.


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