Autonomous Freight Trains Are The Future

Issue 92

Growing concerns over the effectiveness of fully autonomous vehicles have led researchers and developers towards a new sector to fully automize, trains.

Trains may appear to be a thing of the past but in reality, they account for one-third of the total freight that is transported around the United States each year, which is only slightly less than what is transported by trucks. Trains are also much easier to automate as they do not need to account for as many extraneous variables such as other drivers, lane changing, construction, and navigation.

Fully functional autonomous trains have already hit the market with Japan creating the first fully autonomous subway train in 1981, with Australia creating the first autonomous freight train in 2019. The technology already exists and has proven to be safer and more successful than fully autonomous trucks.

In addition, trains are four to five times more energy-efficient than their truck counterparts. Fully autonomous passenger trains have already existed for quite some time, now developers are seeking to expand the sector into freight trains. Maxim A. Dulebenets, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Florida A&M University, who wrote an extensive literature review on fully autonomous freight trains stated that “We think that trains are going to reach full autonomy faster than vehicles.”

One reason that a railway system expansion has been put on the back burner for so long is that constructing new railway systems can be extremely expensive, however, according to the World Atlas “The railway roads of the USA are considered to be the largest and most extensive network in the world, totaling 228,000 km of railroad paths,” with freight railways accounting for 80% of the total network. With the United States already having such an extensive railway system it would only require a slight investment into railway expansion that could increase the capacity of existing rail networks by up to 50%, this would increase the amount of freight carried by trains equivalent to “approximately one million fully loaded Boeing 747-10 passenger jet planes from coast to coast every year.”

However, challenges remain as a significant portion of the railway system is occupied by privately-owned companies and finding ways in which fully autonomous trains can coexist with those controlled by human engineers may prove to be a significant problem.

Source: Wall Street Journal