Bus routes are perhaps the last thing you’d expect a high-tech company to turn into a business mainstay — they’re so last century. But there’s big money in big bus companies — making sure their buses run on time is a primary concern not only of bus companies, but of the municipal officials, who levy fines for failing to stick to the schedules.
In Israel, that fine can amount to NIS 10,000 — which is why Egged, the country’s biggest bus company, is a customer of OptiBus, an Israeli start-up which, according to CEO Gady Shlasky, has the only viable solution to fixed-schedule bus schedule optimization issues. “We are the only ones that can do real-time retooling and rescheduling of transport plans,” Shlasky told The Times of Israel. “With our system, companies can save between 7% and 10% a year on expenses.”
If that doesn’t sound like much, the people at business management firm Ernst and Young beg to differ. A sign of that — they just named OptiBus one of seven finalists in their prestigious The Pitch contest for start-ups. Another endorsement comes from the managers of the IBM Alpha Zone accelerator, who enrolled OptiBus in the company’s one and only tech accelerator anywhere in the world. “Both E&Y and IBM appreciate what we do — solving a major pain for bus companies, and potentially saving them millions of dollars a year,” said Shlasky.
OptiBus does that by doing deep analysis and major number-crunching on anything that could potentially affect the bus schedule — traffic, weather, drivers who call in sick, rock concerts that promise lots of passengers on routes, road closures, and much more. While big-data analysis is not uncommon these days, OptiBus brings to the table extremely fast algorithms, said Shlasky. “In order to manage something as complicated as a bus transport plan in real time, you have to have a very fast analysis system. All the other big data analysis systems are far too slow for this kind of work.”
Examples of OptiBus optimizations could include the following scenario: Traffic delays the arrival of a bus traveling from Beersheba to Tel Aviv, which means that the vehicle will not be available to leave on time for the way back. Since this is a common event, bus companies keep a number of vehicles in “reserve,” ready to take over in case of a problem. For the company, it’s worth the expense. If the bus doesn’t leave on time, according to the schedule the bus company committed to, authorities will fine them. Excuses like “there was traffic” or “the dog ate my homework” are not acceptable, said Shlasky.
Holding those buses in reserve at a ratio is one reserve bus to one active bus in some areas during rush hour, with a driver ready and waiting, too, is a major expense for bus companies. With OptiBus, said Shlasky, companies can dispense with the reserve buses. “If a bus breaks down, we may take a bus from another route that is on a break and reassign it to take over for the broken down bus,” he said. If there’s traffic on a stretch of highway where there are no stops (on an intercity line), drivers might get instructions to take alternate routes. If there are extra buses on a route where there are few passengers, one of those buses may be reassigned in real time as well.
Those are just examples, said Shlasky. “A lot of these things have been done manually until now, with the dispatcher doing his or her best to keep up. But every action has consequences, and it’s impossible for a human being to take into account all the data and make a quick decision on the spot. And even if they could do it with a single change, we could potentially make switches and adjustments for buses, routes, and drivers among a dozen or even 100 buses.”
By way of example, Shlasky said that Egged, Israel’s biggest bus company, has 3,500 vehicles. “It costs them $600 a day to run a bus, and according to our records we save them at least about $50 a day per bus. Multiply those numbers by 30 and 365, and you will see how much money Egged is saving with our system.”
What about other fixed-schedule transportation systems — like planes? “It’s a market we’re definitely interested in for the long term, and we have some good ideas about how to work in that market,” said Shlasky. The basic system and algorithms would fit right in with the scheduling needs of airlines. “As everyone who has ever flown knows, a delay in one place echoes far down the line, delaying many other flights,” he noted — but the OptiBus technology would require some retooling to be effective in the airline industry. “We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, so we are concentrating on public bus transportation, which we have identified as an important market opportunity,” said Shlasky.
Right now, it’s the Israeli market OptiBus is concentrating on. OptiBus is responsible for managing 60% of the bus schedules here — but for the future, the company has set its sights abroad as well. OptiBus is in negotiations with companies and potential partners in both the US and Europe, and it expects to have its first deals in place by the middle of next year. “Bus scheduling may not be sexy, but it’s an essential part of public policy in an era where governments are trying to convince more people to leave their cars at home,” said Shlasky. “Unfortunately, the upside of more bus passengers comes with a downside of more scheduling problems. Our job is to fix those problems.”