by Emma Schimley, Humberto Zarco–
Blacksburg Transit will introduce four new 60-foot-long clean diesel buses next semester. They will have USB ports underneath the seats, standing poles where the so-called bendy seats are on the old so-called bendy buses and will be better for the environment. Their long-term vision, however, is much more ambitious than that.
“There’s always improvement from the previous generation,” said transit director Tom Fox. Fox has been in the transportation business for over 30 years. Fox has tried to keep his eye on the technological advancements that could be incorporated into his vision. At one point, it was USB ports. Today, it is hybrid-powered buses and self-driving technology.
With the environment and their ultimate goal in mind, Blacksburg Transit invested more than $2.8 million into nine new diesel-electric hybrid buses in 2010. In the near future, they hope to add electric buses to their fleet. Although they are expensive on the front end, Fox thinks they could be worth it in the long run.
“That’s something we’re looking seriously at,” Fox said. “As we were looking at the life cycle cost of an electric bus, we’re thinking it may actually be less than a diesel bus because you don’t pay for the fuel.”
In fact, earlier this month, some Blacksburg Transit operators and maintenance workers had the opportunity to test drive an electric bus manufactured by New Flyer, the company that manufactured the 52 buses in their fleet. Fox believes electric buses will be a part of their fleet in the not too distant future.
“It would probably be a minimum of two years and maybe longer depending on how the funding works out,” Fox said.
With safety as the priority, he also hopes to conduct further testing on how the electric buses would handle the hills in Blacksburg, especially when buses are filled to capacity.
Fox hopes the long-term future of Blacksburg Transit will involve self-driving technology, and the future of such may very well be in the hands of Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics.
According to an August 2017 Virginia Tech press release, in late July, Torc’s Lexus RX hybrid completed an autonomous cross-country drive of over 4,300 miles from Washington to Seattle before heading back east to Richmond, Virginia. More than half of Torc’s employees are Virginia Tech alumni, and they have partnered with the university on more than $10 million worth of research and development that could lead to driverless cars hitting the consumer market in a matter of years.
Self-driving technology would greatly benefit Blacksburg Transit, which serves over 3.7 million customers each year, making it the fifth-highest ridership bus system in Virginia, according to a November 2017 New Flyer press release. Resources previously used to recruit and pay operators could be used in other areas, such as bus maintenance.
“We’re watching the progress on autonomous vehicles,” Fox said. “That’s probably not in the near future, but we’re monitoring it, and that is sure is going to be something in the future.”