Here’s a quick tip for the next time you’re at a cocktail party talking to someone from the Bay Area. If there’s a lull in the conversation, get them going on the topic of public transportation.
Even easier: just drop the words “getting there” or “commute” and you’re sure to spark a long, winding chat during which your conversation partner is guaranteed to have no shortage of opinions. It will buy you, on average, 7 minutes of conversation time. Now that’s a commodity for the socially awkward.
Of course, there’s a reason Bay Area natives have so many opinions on transit -- more than Los Angeles car lovers, more than New Yorkers - the Bay Area may not be one single metropolis, but for many who live here, commuting to work means passing through a number of metro areas, people traveling as many as 50 miles a day one way, to get to work. Meet the mega-commuters.
So it’s especially important to cheer for the public transit systems that make so many individuals’ commutes possible. One of those is in Echelon’s backyard: the Santa Clara County Valley Transit Authority, a system of light rail trains serving the over 2 million people who live and work in Silicon Valley every day.
The VTA light rail system is a classic, old-school model of light rail trains, says Dallas Spadaro, an engineer at Rail Transit Consultants who helped rig up the trains.
The key for a system like VTA, Spadaro says, is flexibility and modularity. At some peak hours, like commuter rush hour, VTA conductors have the ability to adjust their trains, making train cars longer; when there’s a quiet patch during the day, they can remove the extra cars. This reconfiguration is one of the many things that makes building a dynamic system for the VTA paramount.
"For many who live here, mega-commuting to work means passing through a number of metro areas, people traveling as many as 50 miles a day one way, to get to work. it’s especially important to cheer for the public transit systems that make so many individuals’ commutes possible."
And as with any dynamic train system, monitoring matters. For the VTA, a set of LonWorks communicating chips is crucial for keeping the whole system together -- rush hour or not. There are the changing car configurations to keep track of; hundreds of doors that open thousands of times a day, windows that a passenger might crack for some air, and of course, all-important braking and propulsion systems. Each of these components has to be carefully tracked for functionality and maintenance reasons. It’s also crucial to gather all the little trickles of data each of these functions offers the VTA engineers and conductors: what’s peak hour like? When is the most energy lost on the trains? The VTA trains have always been a part of a sustainable community in the valley, making this kind of data gathering and monitoring incredibly important to keeping that mission alive.
Spadaro says the design of the VTA system, which launched over a decade ago, is purposefully simple. Wires would get in the way, and this kind of set-up, like many of its industrial cousins, has no need for large amounts of bandwidth. That’s why they kept interconnection to a minimum, without being dependent on an external wireless network or on power lines.
We dug way back into our archives to tell this story for a reason. In Silicon Valley, everyone’s always eager to tell the story of how they did it first, how they saw Apple or PayPal or Facebook coming before their founders were even old enough to sit at a keyboard. But it’s a funny truth when it comes to the Internet of Things: industry has seen this day coming for a long, long time. And the scaffolding is there, waiting, in applications like this one, as we step into an exciting new phase of the industrial Internet.