Feature: What will be the key features in future bus design?

30 November 2017

It’s tempting to think that buses are restricted in terms of design. Fundamentally, they have to be large rectangular vehicles, capable of fitting as many people on board as possible. However, designers can play with a number of different areas, and some futuristic features, possibly mainstays of tomorrow’s buses, are starting to rear their heads.

Concepts are always a good place to look for tomorrow’s design, and the Mercedes Future Bus looks more like Sci-Fi Captain Scarlett’s latest transport than anything at your local bus stop – its neon interior and sculpted roof aren’t exactly what you’d expect on the 395 to Wigan.

While it is a manned vehicle, one of its key features is the ability to switch between manual and automated drive modes, allowing the driver to relinquish control at certain times. Luminous paddles on the front, along with sections of the interior lighting, change from white to blue when the bus enters ‘semi-automated’ mode so that passengers and pedestrians can tell when the vehicle is travelling independently.

Internal features include a pair of 43-inch monitors to display information to passengers, a 12.3-inch display in place of conventional dials for the driver, and a wireless charging facility for mobile devices.

The latter may not be common on today’s buses but the industry is tuning in to the fact that most passengers now own a smartphone. In February, council-run operator Cardiff Bus introduced a fleet of 10 Alexander Dennis buses equipped with free to use 4G Wi-Fi connectivity and a USB charging point for each seat – proof that mobile-friendly buses are an obvious next step.

The European Commission came to a similar realisation during its European Bus System of the Future (ESBF) initiative, which ran between 2008 and 2012. Project heads reported that WLAN, GPS, and 230-volt sockets fitted to its Evobus demonstrator model “enabled passengers to operate laptops and similar devices in the bus, making the bus a more appealing and accessible mobility choice”.

Not everyone believes smartphones should be a staple of future bus travel, though. Go South Coast isn’t sold on the idea of passengers being glued to their screens, so in October, it took the bold step of fitting U-shaped seating to 13 of its single-decker buses operating in the Wiltshire and Dorset areas. This is an intentionally more sociable arrangement compared to the conventional two-seat bench configuration, to encourage travellers to put down their phones and make conversation. The sections can accommodate eight people and are also designed to stop passengers from filling empty seats with luggage. If successful, the operator said the format could be rolled out to other regions.

Powertrain technology is likely to have a bigger impact on the physical appearance of future buses than anything else, and passengers can expect to see an increasing number of unique features as more vehicles shift to alternative fuels.

Electric buses using an opportunity charging system – whereby they absorb power at fixed intervals along their route – don’t look wildly different to your average bus. However, they absorb power via pantograph, which connects to the vehicle’s roof, so the buses are typically a little taller than average in order to accommodate the up-top charging apparatus. Far more obvious are the pantographs themselves – large half-gantries that contain charging equipment which lowers onto the top of the bus and retracts back into its housing after topping up the vehicle. The UK’s first such system is set to enter service in early 2018 in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, with Volvo 7900e buses operated by Transdev Blazefield.

The alternative method is overnight charging, where the vehicle absorbs power at the depot while it’s off-duty and hits the road with a full charge. The drawback is that it requires a larger battery, which takes a bite out of passenger space, although manufacturers are gradually redesigning interiors to keep pace with battery technology.

BYD revealed its Midibus in October, which differs from most of the firm’s previous buses – and the majority of plug-in rivals – in that it uses a more compact battery pack, capable of storing a greater level of energy in a smaller package than has typically been seen before. As a result, the firm claims there is no impediment on passenger space, so you get just as much room inside an electric bus as you would in an equivalent diesel, meaning passengers can expect more spacious interiors from electric buses as battery technology progresses.

The Midibus also uses low-energy LED lighting, which doesn’t do its range any harm, and is another likely future hallmark of green buses. Trick interior lights are also a prospective feature of tomorrow’s vehicles, as the aforementioned ESBF report cited “special lighting elements” that can quite literally shine a light on roomier sections of crowded buses. The lights would “show passengers where best to get on so that congestion is avoided at the doors and appropriate ceiling lights inside show passengers where vacant seats can be found which reduces the time spent looking for a seat.”

The ESBF study looked at flexible seating layouts too, which could become another welcome addition to future bus design. As part of the project, engineers fitted a sliding seat system to an Irisbus Iveco demonstrator vehicle, with the ability to increase the number of seats from 21 to 26.

The subsequent report concluded: “Modularity can increase the attractiveness of the bus system, through the optimisation of capacity, consumption (and emissions) and frequency at different times according to the demand. It also provides benefits to operators’ efficiency, thanks to the increase in capacity and the reduction of driving costs during peak hours.”

In a similar vein, the ESBF report included a case study from Volvo, whereby the manufacturer increased the passenger capacity by 25% from 116 on a standard articulated bus to 147 on its prototype, simply by relocating the front axle further forward. Given that a longer wheelbase can free up another quarter of passenger capacity without any increase in overall length, it’s reasonable to expect more of the same in future.