French SNCF envisions autonomous trains by 2025
The French state-owned rail company, SNCF, has announced this Wednesday the creation of two consortiums specially aimed at the development of two autonomous train prototypes. The freight train and TER (regional train) concepts should be ready by 2023 and put into service by 2025.
Alstom, Altran Ansaldo, Bombardier, Apsys Thales, Bosch and Spirops have all been gathered by the SNCF in two consortiums to develop the next industrial revolution after the TGV in 1980: the autonomous train.
German company, Bosch, who’s already developing different radars and other sensors for the autonomous car will apply its knowledge to trains. These self-driving trains will use data from satellites, radar and artificial intelligence to manage their route.
The company awards this project a budget of 57 million euro, of which 30% is financed by the SNCF, 40% by its partners and 30% by the French State through the Railenium Technological Research Institute.
The two concepts, one designed to transport freight and the other passengers, should be ready by 2023 but they won’t be travelling on French rails before 2025. However, the autonomous or semi-autonomous train will come sooner. The Transilien (Île-de-France regional train) and RER E Eole trains will enter their manufacturing status next year and both should be put into service by 2023.
Those trains will only be partly autonomous. They will control their own speed, braking and acceleration, but the train driver will still be in charge of everything else. To arrive to the same level of automation for TGV, the SNCF plans on launching a prototype by 2023. With those Level 2 autonomous TGVs, the Paris-Lyon line could see 16 trains per hour instead of the current 13.
The major stake of this endeavour is to reduce costs. With machines being faster than humans and easier to coordinate, a line could run more autonomous trains during the same period. More passengers would be transported all while costs of electricity used on acceleration would be reduced.
Traffic on saturated lines could be relieved at the fraction of the cost of a new line. According to the SNCF, employment won’t go down because those autonomous machines will need supervision, maintenance and services.
Planes, trains and automobiles
While planes have been flying with autopilot for decades and even boats are crossing the sea by using satellite navigation, the stake for autonomous trains or cars is higher because of the numerous mishaps. Companies are investing huge amounts in the development of self-driving technologies because of increased safety and profit margins.
“Car accidents cause 1,4 million deaths per year worldwide. It’s the biggest cause of death but 90% of accidents are caused by human error”, declared Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the alliance Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi.
Safety is one of the major drivers to continue developing autonomous technologies. However, the current prototypes are still in development and since 2014, California has seen 95 autonomous car accidents.
The technology still has to adapt to the many unexpected events happening in today’s traffic, even if that event doesn’t respect the Highway Code. Uber had important consequences when one of their self-driving prototypes killed a cyclists that was crossing the road at night back in March.