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Mythbusting: Autonomous rail will come before autonomous cars and trucks

Trains are easier to run with Autonomous Vehicle technology, so they should come before self-driving cars, right? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Detractors of autonomous vehicles—especially those who say they don’t believe the hype of self-driving cars and trucks—often point out that rail would actually be the easiest technology to implement. If we don’t even have autonomous rail, they point out, then aren’t we getting a ahead of ourselves? And for all the excitement surrounding electric and self-driving trucks, why are many of the major truck manufacturers still emphasizing driver comfort?

Is America ready for autonomous rail first?

The most recent Stifel industry update asks if the railroad industry is ready to move into a new era focused on technology and customers. The answer is, not exactly.

According to the report, “The next/current chapter of railroad history includes a further round of cost cuts and efficiency efforts. The result of these efforts has been to, in general, run longer, slower, heavier, less frequent trains. Not exactly a fit with Amazon’s redefining of customer expectations. As a result, carriers have been somewhat left to the whims of the energy, grain, and chemicals market cycles.”

Critics within the industry argue that there is a limit “to how far a railroad can ride this ‘downsize your operation to prosperity’ strategy.”

It’s not the technology

It’s a good thing the world isn’t waiting on America to solve its transportation issues first anyway. America’s rail lags in a number of significant ways from other rail systems throughout the world. America’s rail is private, and not generally interested in innovation and expansion to commuters and travelers. Japan, by contrast, has had high speed rail for over 50 years. France has had it since the 1970s. Now, even China is getting on the high-speed joyride.

It’s not the technology. Even in America, the first completely automated subway train went into service in New York in 1961, and a crewless freight train system was tested in Canada a year later, according to a an Office of Technogy report circa 1976.

Today, autonomous rail systems operate around the world as metros, subways, or light rail, manufactured by the likes of Siens in Germany, Alstom in France, and Bombaier in Canada.

The development of Autonomous Vehicle (AV) technology in rail is taking stronger hold on lines around the world. In Australia, global mining giant, Rio Tinto, is looking at the world’s first fully autonomous, heavy-haul, long-distance railway system to transport iron ore. In the Netherlands, Prorail announced in 2016 plans to trial automated operation freight trains. The CEO of German operator Deutsche Bahn, Rüdiger Grube, has stated the company’s intention to introduce driverless trains by 2021.

Fully autonomous trains and planes are easier than fully autonomous cars. The technology for planes to take off, land and fly to other destinations with no oversight has existed for well over two decades. Think cruise missiles. Look at drones, which fly themselves with humans looking on when necessary and for specific control of munitions. Similarly, train management systems are fully capable of getting trains along tracks safely.

What they haven’t solved is the liability problem. Trains and planes are owned by major corporations. While these corporations would love to get rid of the relatively highly paid pilots, navigators, engineers and conductors on planes, if something goes wrong, they can blame it on human error and avoid corporate liability.

Dr. David Clarke, director of the University of Tennessee Center for Transportation Research Center, says, “The stopping distance of a train is much longer than a car. It could be close to a mile. Organized labor doesn’t like the idea of losing the jobs of its members to driverless trains,” says Clark. “There has been push back with the allegation of safety issues. Politically, that makes it hard to implement.”

Autonomous cars mean more to our lives

The technical challenge for cars and trucks may be a little greater because the environment can be more chaotic. However, the cost of individual error is lower. Perhaps most importanly, driverless cars do more than advance technology. They solve societal problems.

If hundreds of millions of commuters could be working, reading, or talking to their family and cut down the stress of daily travel, how would their lives change? If a few thousand pilots were relieved of their jobs, what would necessarily change?

Driverless cars are the real priority, and it’s not hype. Besides liability concerns, pragmatically with cars, and even trucks, it’s easier to stop. There are less potential explosives on board, less people on board to get injured.

Most importantly, more than other innovations like electric vehicles and high-speed rail, autonomous cars will create rides for the elderly, the blind and physically-challenged. Parents can aggregate their entire ecosystems. Need one kid at soccer practice while the other has a piano lesson? No problem, just plug them into a self-driving car and everyone’s on time and happy.

It could happen. It is happening, and rail will just have to get on board when and where it can. The trucking industry has a lot to gain as well, but for now the trucking companies are generally in “wait-and-see” mode.