Whenever driverless cars are talked about, you will hear two confusing terms: automated and autonomous driving. In the field of mobility this is a top trending topic – not only for road transport, but also for rail and air transport. Yet what does it actually mean? And is there a difference between autonomous and automated?
A vehicle travels “autonomously” if it performs a driving task without any external intervention. In doing so it can use auxiliary equipment, such as sensors to detect its environment or GPS. However, it makes all the driving decisions itself.
A vehicle drives in “automated” mode when it repeatedly performs individual steps of a driving task independently. The overriding driving task, however, is performed by a system that repeatedly controls the vehicle from outside.
“There are forecasts according to which the first autonomous cars will be driving on Germany’s roads no later than 2030”, says Sandra Schmitt, who heads the Solution Center Vehicle IT & Operating Center at DB Systel. It goes without saying that this will have an effect on the overall traffic situation, the infrastructure – but also directly on Deutsche Bahn. “As a rail operator, we must ask ourselves: how will we earn our money in future if autonomous vehicles are on the roads?” For this reason, DB regards the topic as a Group project. “We are also considering how we can make the “last mile” connection, i.e. the route from the destination station to the school or swimming pool”, says Schmitt. “This could possibly be done by using autonomous minibuses.”
Faster processes, better results
But there are more obvious reasons for automated processes. Automated speed regulation, for example, could improve energy efficiency. Furthermore, automated traffic would ensure greater punctuality in many areas, and network capacity in particular could be increased by optimising the interval between trains and reducing block spacings. Thomas Schnitzmeier from DB Heavy Maintenance also sees great potential in this technology – and is making a test area at the Paderborn depot available for a pilot project.
For good reason: the vehicle maintenance depot has its own shunting yard, where there are 15 to 20 vehicle movements every day. Because the first evaluation and the subsequent maintenance planning can take a few days, there are always more than 100 vehicles permanently on the site. They must continuously be changed around so that the vehicles move in the right sequence onto the right production tracks. That is a considerable amount of shunting work within a relatively short time frame.
We are looking for opportunities to optimise the processes in the depot and the dispatch of the wagons and so that we can shunt around the clock.
“We would like to automate this process and use the road-rail vehicles already available to us for this purpose.” A road-rail vehicle is a vehicle that is capable of travelling on both roads and railways. At present, these vehicles are remotely controlled on site. The depot uses the road-rail vehicles for smaller shunting duties and for pushing the freight wagons to and fro. For larger shunting movements, a diesel locomotive from DB Cargo is used for a couple of hours every day.
From idea to pilot project
DB Systel wants to use the pilot project to prove that it is possible, with the systems and technologies already in use, to tackle innovative ideas such as automated driving and implement them quickly. And there is great confidence that this will be successful. “The existing rail infrastructure already ensures that we know where vehicles are at all times. There is one central office that has an overview – and can therefore control the automated driving centrally”, says Florian Esser from the Institute for Rail Vehicles at RWTH Aachen University. For the pilot project in Paderborn, DB Systel has secured the support of the RWTH university of applied sciences in Aachen, which has been conducting research in this field for a number of years.
Implementation with on-board resources
Many current rail vehicles are already prepared for automated operation. “That was the issue for us: we wanted to demonstrate that we can build on the existing basis”, says Sandra Schmitt. The road-rail vehicles in Paderborn were therefore equipped with technology such as radio receivers and sensors, which are already used widely elsewhere. “Furthermore, we were on site at the vehicle manufacturer’s premises, where we received training and purchased the necessary software”, explains Schmitt, referring to the preparations. “We only had to add the interface to the vehicle.” Consequently, the road-rail vehicle can now be coupled with the DB technology and addressed by radio from a central control system installed on a notebook – whereas it was previously remotely controlled.
The aim is that the dispatcher makes entries in an IT system to show which vehicles are to be made available on the production tracks, so that the road-rail vehicle applies an algorithm to shunt the goods wagons and make them available. By then the topic of safety will have been resolved, because scheduled operations obviously have different prerequisites than a pilot project under laboratory conditions. For example, it is intended in the next stages to monitor the premises on which the automated traffic takes place – or to install a clearance monitor on the vehicle to prevent accidents.
The test completed at the end of 2016 is the first success: the vehicle now reacts to the commands and completes the specified driving speed profile. “To start with, we have tested on a small scale so that it can later be applied on a large scale”, says Schmitt. The automatic shunting at the depot then still has to be implemented. Without a doubt: the track ahead is clear at any rate.