The technology driving autonomous cars may find its way into the nation’s busiest and stressed subway system.
The New York City Subway looked to the forerunners of transit technologies for answers as it searches for guidance to restore and re-engineer its aging network of trains. To entice designers, engineers, entrepreneurs and others to come forward with their best ideas, the Metropolitan Transit Authority organized a contest known as the MTA Genius Transit Challenge
“The MTA Genius Challenge was an innovative way to get the best and brightest to help upgrade the subway faster and cheaper,” said Kristina Johnson, and MTA Genius Challenge judge and chancellor-elect for the State University of New York, in a statement.
Eight winners, in three categories, were announced, amassing nearly $2.5 million in prize money from the MTA. The MTA was looking for innovative technology in signaling, subway car design and communication and as a result, some 438 submissions came forward from more than 20 countries, since the Genius Challenge was launched last year. Nearly half of the proposals are new ideas and not yet in active use.
Some of the best and brightest ideas came from the same corners of innovation developing the technology behind self-driving cars.
“With the proposal, basically, we put a futuristic and kind of ambitious vision toward the ultra-wideband train control system that we’ve had in development now for about six years,” said Rick Carlson Jr., chief operating officer for Metrom Rail
, one of two winners in the signaling category.
Ultra-wideband refers to the collision avoidance technology applied to self-driving cars. Engineers stress the technology could be translated to rail systems, allowing trains to travel closer together and communicate more effectively with their surroundings.
“It’s extremely robust for rail applications,” said Carlson in a recent interview with Government Technology. Metrom Rail, based in Crystal Lake, Ill., was awarded $250,000 for its signaling technology submission.
“What ultra-wideband ultimately prepares us to do is to provide an incredibly precise train position and ranging distance in real time. With that, we can identify optimal train behavior," he said. "We can make sure operators comply with signals, or stop in the right spot. Or, ultimately, we can identify when a hazardous condition might be upcoming and take action to rectify that situation."
A similar proposal was offered by Robert James, chief engineer for emerging mobility at HNTB
, a national engineering and consulting firm specializing in transit infrastructure. James was also awarded a $250,000 prize for his ultra-wideband signaling submission.
“We’re supposed to sit down with the MTA to figure out how they want to implement it. They said they would get with us in couple of weeks. They’re doing some internal planning right now,” James told Government Technology. “But we hope to deploy this as quickly as we can, in all the tunnels,” he added.
Winning the challenge doesn’t guarantee a contract with the MTA or move the proposal from the drawing boards to actual implementation. As a next step, the winners will be “thoroughly vetted” by the MTA and their plans studied further, with any official procurement ultimately decided by the MTA Board of Directors.
“Within the Genius Challenge, we were humbled for the recognition. And we’re encouraged to see the push for modernity and innovation, driven by agencies such as the MTA,” said Carlson.
Craig Avedisian, an attorney who has studied trains and their operation, offered a winning idea to accommodate subway trains longer than the platforms, thereby increasing the number of cars and accommodating more passengers.
The New York City Subway transports some 6 million passengers daily, on trains marked with significant overcrowding. Avedisian’s proposal, which earned him a $330,000 prize, would have the trains lengthened by three to four cars. Not all cars would serve all stations, with some of them remaining in the tunnel. Those cars would platform at other predetermined stops.
“I cannot speak for the MTA, but of course I hope the idea is implemented,” Avedisian said in an email. “I always had confidence in the idea given its impact, cost-effectiveness and the ability to implement it — relatively — quickly compared to other alternatives to expand capacity.”
The New York City Subway is more than a century old and stretches along 665 miles of track, serving 472 stations. In recent years the system has been plagued by breakdowns and overcrowding. Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the subway system, while allocating nearly $1 billion for much-needed upgrades.
Much of the changes will be technology-oriented. Already, a plan to bring Wi-Fi and cellular technology to the stations has facilitated 280 million calls and 120 million Wi-Fi logins in the first year, according to Transit Wireless, the company behind the system.
The upgrade is but one piece of the move to transform the subway into the sort of modern transit system that cities like New York are known for.
“When we started building this five years ago, no one even used the terms ‘connected city’ or ‘smart city’ as much as they do today,” said Bill Bayne, CEO of Transit Wireless.
“But absolutely, it’s an expected utility by not only the riders, but employees of the transit, first responders, contractors,” Bayne said of the expectation for Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity. “When you think of how many people are below ground on a daily basis, even just working there, everybody needs to have connectivity for a variety of reasons.”
Transit Wireless received and honorable mention for its Genius Challenge proposal to bring Wi-Fi into the subway’s roughly 6,400 subway cars.
The biggest challenge to installing comprehensive communications infrastructure through the underground tunnels and trains is not so much technological as logistical, said Bayne.
“We do our work from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. We can’t disrupt rider traffic,” said Bayne.
“The MTA is quite keen and continues to expand,” he added. “We’ve just got to be clever in how we do that, to deal with the logistics of the New York City transit system.”