Automatic Vehicle Location In The Transit Industry: What Is It And Why Do Agencies Need It?

Automatic Vehicle Location In The Transit Industry: What Is It And Why Do Agencies Need It?

In a world that is constantly in a hurry, having certain types of information is considered a must. When it comes to public transportation, knowing when your bus is going to arrive may make or break your day. On the other hand, transit agencies need a precise log of their operations to optimize their work. Let’s talk about Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) and how it can help the transit industry improve service with real-time data! 

In this article:

What does Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) mean? 

Automatic Vehicle Location is a technology that allows vehicles to transmit data about their location in real time. This is done with the help of special GPS modules that can be integrated in the vehicle itself or via an onboard device like a tablet, smartphone, or validator. The data can be transmitted over a variety of networks (radio, LTE, GPRS, 4G) and is fed to a radio receiver or synchronized to a cloud.  

What is AVL in transportation? 

In the public transit domain, AVL systems provide priceless information to both riders and agency staff. For the agency, the benefits span from better route planning and optimizations to driver accountability. For riders, the main benefit is Real-time passenger information (RTPI) systems that can be integrated in mobile apps, websites, on bus shelters. In this way, riders can plan their way better and avoid spending a lot of time waiting for their bus. Another benefit is that they can find the best route based on their needs (time, distance, number of changes, etc.). 

Types of AVL systems 

There are several types of automatic vehicle location – simple direction finding, LORAN-based locating, signpost systems, GPS-based location, and sensor-augmented AVL. For typical use in public transportation, GPS-based location is by far the best technology and therefore we are going to focus on it for this article. 

GPS-based location is accurate and reliable and does not need a lot of equipment to work. A small sensor can be integrated into the vehicle’s onboard computer, or an onboard mobile device can do the job as well. Modeshift’s choice of onboard validators has a built-in GPS sensor – one piece of equipment serves for location, validation, and data synchronization! 

Benefits: why modern transit can’t live without Automatic Vehicle Location 

Modern transit agencies strive to serve their riders in the best possible way. This cannot be done without robust AVL and RTPI systems as modern riders demand accurate and timely information. Urban dwellers are always in a hurry, and nothing can spoil their day like a late bus (or one that does not arrive at all). To make sure their service is impeccable, agencies need to be smarter in the general context of smart city innovation.  

As mentioned earlier, the benefits for both agencies and riders are numerous. Here is a breakdown of the most important ones. 

AVL Systems: Benefits for the transit agencies 

  • Monitor, manage and optimize fleet operations 

Automatic vehicle location provides the base for a truly efficient fleet management system. Data received by the AVL back end can be fed to algorithms to improve schedules, optimize routes, and monitor driver performance. Combined with equipment to monitor rider count (such as automated fare collection systems), it can provide valuable insight into public transportation usage on each line. Based on this aggregated data, agency management can make informed decisions to increase/decrease the number of vehicles on specific lines, alter their routes or even suspend them.  

Modeshift’s AVL system offers a real-time overview of all vehicles and dispatchers can constantly monitor on-time performance (which can significantly improve driver efficiency).   

Fleet optimization is also one of the easiest soft measures to reduce a city’s carbon footprint. By creating better routes that can serve more people (and even attract new riders to the system), carbon emissions can be successfully cut in addition to other green initiatives such as switching to an all-electric fleet and the introduction of MaaS.  

  • Improve response time to operational issues 

AVL improves communication between dispatcher and driver and can serve to bridge the gap in situations where immediate action is necessary. If needed, dispatchers can make ad hoc changes to routes to circumvent traffic accident sites or other obstacles, and thus avoid delays. Some AVL systems include silent alarms and video surveillance which has been proven to reduce the number of assaults on public transportation. Thanks to them, the driver can easily notify the despatcher about an emergency and provide an exact location in one movement. 

  • Gather a large variety of data 

No transit agency can deem itself modern if it does not own its data. AVL systems provide better historical data which can be used for optimizations and reporting. Even in areas with coverage issues, AVL systems continuously record the vehicle’s location and can synchronize it to the cloud the moment they get connected. 

AVL Systems: Benefits for the riders 

  • Real-time passenger information 

RTPI systems transformed life in the busy city. Nowadays, riders can check the arrival time of their bus on their phone while still at home and avoid waiting at the bus stop. They can plan their days better, spend less time commuting, and enjoy their commute more – as one of the worst public transit experiences is waiting.  

  • Improved accuracy of information 

Depending on the AVL system, updates can be set to different intervals. A good AVL system will feed the RTPI system with a continuous feed of information at the smallest interval possible (every few seconds). For areas with coverage interruptions, predictive algorithms can fill in the gaps. 

What can go wrong? 

The greatest challenge in front of AVL implementation is the expertise needed to provide a fully integrated service. Some companies offer the equipment, some provide only the software. Some agencies need a solution built from the ground up, some need only an add-on. Making the AVL system work with all other components of the transit ecosystem is a challenging task – but one we are ready to meet. Unlike our competitors, Modeshift can provide the full suite of tools that transit agencies need and make sure that they work together. Even in cases where we need to build AVL on top of an existing solution, our engineers have the necessary skills to integrate it efficiently.  

When integrated improperly, AVL systems may increase the need for IT staff within the agency. This is a hidden cost we are set to remove from the transit landscape, as all our products are built to be operated by already existing staff with the necessary training. 

Going forward

AVL systems can significantly improve transit service. While there is no doubt regarding the benefits, many agencies are still hesitant due to the challenges mentioned above. With modern technology and a team with a combined experience of over 220 years on our side, Modeshift can prove its solutions work better at a lower cost. An investment worth considering! 



AVL stands for Automatic Vehicle Location.
Automatic Vehicle Location is a technology that allows vehicles to transmit data about their location in real time.
In the public transit domain, AVL systems provide information about vehicle location in real time to both riders and agency staff.