German railways to introduce autonomous long distance trains by 2023

The CEO of Germany’s railways, Ruediger Grube, does not want to fall behind the auto industry with autonomous mobility and has announced that Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) will operate on parts of the railway network with full autonomy “by 2021, 2022, or 2023″. Test are already underway on a part of the German railway network in Eastern Germany.

The technology for autonomous long distance trains differs greatly from the technology for autonomous metro-trains and subways which already operate in many cities of the world. In the latter case, most of the intelligence for autonomous driving is embedded into the railroad infrastructure and a centralized controller that is in constant communication with all trains; the trains themselves, in contrast have little intelligence; they don’t operate autonomously. This approach is not viable for long-distance networks because upgrading thousands of kilometers of the network with controllers and sensors would be much to costly. Therefore most of the intelligence has to be embedded within the locomotive. Fully autonomous long distance trains therefore need to be equipped with sensors and algorithms that are very similar to those used in self-driving cars.

The advantage of self-driving trains does not lie so much in cost reduction but in the ability to increase network capacity because trains can be operated with higher frequencies and at shorter distances. This also increase the flexibility of rail-based transportation solutions and makes new services possible. These capabilities are essential if railroads want to survive against the greatly intensifying competition from fully autonomous self-driving cars, trucks and buses.

German unions immediately criticized their plans. But they fail to understand that fully autonomous road-based transportation will provide an enormous challenge for the railroads. Deutsche Bahn is on the right track. They should do everything to accelerate their introduction of autonomous long distance trains.

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