SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES – BRACE YOURSELF FOR DRIVERLESS TRAINS
People around the planet start to get themselves familiarized with self-driving cars, Tesla and Volvo are at the peak of the experiment that leads to an allegedly safer world, but Germany is at the forefront of developing trains that can make 400 kilometers per hour, without drivers: they call it the Next Generation Train (NGT) Project.
My grandfather was born in 1923: when he was a child, the normal scenery consisted of horse-drawn omnibuses, the skies were virtually free of planes, and the automobiles were reserved as seldom-seen flamboyant toys of the rich and famous. In his lifetime, he has gone from the spectacle of horse-drawn carriages to an era where AI could have – admittedly limited – conversations with humans, and self-driving cars were running millions of test-kilometers, learning how to abide by traffic regulations, how to read road signs, and most importantly how to avoid other vehicles and pedestrians.
Next Generation Trains: smart, fast, efficient
We slowly but surely start getting used to self-driving cars, but NGTs are another cup of tea. If something goes wrong with a car, the driver can always step on the brake, and God forbid should something go wrong: a couple of wounds or broken bones would be the result, compared to the atrocity of a train full of passengers: meaning hundreds and hundreds of souls.
The responsibility is huge, but progress can never be halted, only misused.
Having worked at a company that constructs – among other things – railways for the TGV (train grande vitesse) in France, engineers explained that the level of speed and weights they had to deal with were so huge that they needed space-flight level precision in engineering.
It is no wonder that the developer of the NGT is no other than the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR).
The concept aims to make European rail freight more appealing and hence increase its market share. It is distinguished by a high level of automation, intelligent handling and high speeds. In this way, rail freight transportation can be made more flexible and the capacity of the system can be increased.
The automatically driven NGT CARGO trains will be made up of single wagons and powerful end cars, automatically coupled together as required. "In this way, we can transport a vast range of goods flexibly, and with low use of resources, minimal deployment of personnel and short transport times," says DLR researcher Joachim Winter, summarizing the key benefits of the concept.
"Freight transport is currently dominated by block trains that are not shunted and that use a large number of wagons to carry large, standard volumes of freight from point A to point B," summarizes Winter. This is because, until now, a very elaborate process using rigid operating procedures underlies single wagon transport. Coupling and uncoupling wagons, picking them up and delivering them is very time- and resource-intensive and account for 30 to 40 percent of the overall costs.
Furthermore, the individual wagons can travel the final kilometers to the respective customer automatically and autonomously. Each single wagon is equipped with the appropriate sensors to do so. So, for example, it can be located at all times and customers can have precise details about the current status and expected arrival time of their freight. The wagons can also be driven directly into ports, transshipment stations or logistics terminals, right up to the high level racks, where they are also then loaded or unloaded automatically.
The NGT train family consists of the NGT CARGO, the NGT HST high-speed locomotive, which can reach speeds of up to 400 kilometers per hour on suitable tracks, and the NGT LINK, a fast Intercity locomotive that can reach up to 230 kilometers per hour and is expected to transport passengers from the hinterland to main railway stations on high-speed lines.
Code recognition makes NGTs really useful
Just as with every complex system, the world of self-driving trains needs a most powerful backup computerized control system that will provide the railway companies with key traffic data real time. Where is the train? Is it on schedule? Has there been any unforeseen incident during the transport?
A fully automated smart camera system that is equipped with train code recognition, coupled with a railway CCTV could be the answer.
The NGTs are smart. But they will only live up to their potential if they will be assisted with wagon OCR and UIC code recognition, that are integrated part of an intelligent railway system.
After the cars and the trains, the next chapter of autonomous vehicles is that of self-flying planes: Ryanair's CEO says we'll see 'pilot-less planes' in the next 40 to 50 years!