BUSES MAY SEEM LIKE ancient technology in the age of the Information Superhighway. But at the New Jersey Transportation Dept., the old and the new are merging. The state agency is using multimedia and virtual-reality technologies to help train more than 600 new bus drivers and give 1,000 veteran ones refresher courses. First-time students start off by sitting at lifelike bus consoles and watching computer-driven images on a theater-size projection screen. A computer tracks their reaction times and competency as the drivers try to cope with various scenarios such as icy road conditions.
For the ones who pass that test, a considerably more realistic simulation awaits. Students sit at a mock bus cab and drive, via remote control, a 1/24th-scale model bus moving around a 16-foot by 20-foot diorama cityscape in another room. Through their front and side windows, the students see images received from miniature video cameras in the model bus. Students are required to navigate city streets, avoid obstacles and pedestrians, and park between other buses. The setup is realistic enough, a spokesman says, that some students experience mild motion sickness. The virtual trainer costs $180,000, but N.J. Transit, the first to use such high-tech training tools, says it saves $100,000 a year in training costs. Moreover, the agency plans to rent the system out to other bus lines to get additional income.