Could driverless trucks harm freight rail?

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Could driverless trucks harm freight rail?

Postby SouthernRailway » Sun Jun 29, 2014 3:11 pm

I read today in the Financial Times that driverless trucks are in development, although there will need to be a crew member on board to handle deliveries.

Could driverless trucks make trucking significantly more efficient, and thus adversely affect freight rail? Or could they make trucking only a little more efficient and so they should be nothing to worry about?
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Re: Could driverless trucks harm freight rail?

Postby 2nd trick op » Sun Jun 29, 2014 10:15 pm

"Driverless" vehicles are probably a long way off -- at least in the sense of a widespread application of something that could let your grandparents get to the doctor's office, for example, on their own.

The idea seems to be most popular among people who have the greatest detachment from an understanding of how technology "trickles down", and is made adaptable to a mass market. They are usually very young, have been raised in an "over-sanitized" suburban environment, and often have been over-saturated in the fantasy world of Hollywood which, for sure, never attempts to explain why the dreams they peddle aren't feasible in the real world.

The "driverless" cars ballyhooed by Google and others perform their dog-and-pony show under tightly controlled conditions; but any venture into real-life 24 hour / 7 day reliability has to account for any number of outside factors, and those factors themselves don't conform to a standard model.

To draw a parallel, from an industry we all know and love, let's consider, for example. a single CTC-controlled division of perhaps 150 miles; it;s not likely to have more than perhaps 20 remote-controlled interlocking plants at which a train can be stopped. re-routed or re-started. Yet other than a handful of subway shuttles and mining-based operations, no serious attempt to replace engine crews has been proposed. The number and diversity of potential conditions and obstacles from outside "the system" is just too great -- even assuming that the right of way can be secured by a fence.

Now consider a highway operation, with an infinite potential of complicated intersections, weather conditions, changes in the distribution of weight on the vehicle (Truckers call it "load shifting", and it can happen anytime, occasionally with serious consequences), far-greater variations in gradients, and any number of irrational and unpredictable actions by those critters called human beings.

Nevertheless, the possibility of a self-directed vehicle adaptable to the movement of smaller quantities of valuable freight, door-to-door over the highway system is tantalizing -- the potential savings are immense. But if a pilot program ever emerged, the logical location would be those segments of the Interstate Highway System which permit the heaviest vehicles, and operate in relatively flat country -- the Ohio, Indiana, Kansas and Florida Turnpikes, and the New York State Thruway -- where "double-bottoms" of full sized, rather than single axle trailers are already sanctioned, and ironically, referred to by (motor) dispatchers as "trains".

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting, however.
What a revoltin' development this is! (William Bendix)
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Re: Could driverless trucks harm freight rail?

Postby RussNelson » Mon Jun 30, 2014 9:12 pm

That's weird, 2nd Trick Op, you wrote that two years ago, but it has yesterday's date on it.
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Re: Could driverless trucks harm freight rail?

Postby jkovach » Tue Jul 01, 2014 9:11 pm

If there needs to be a crew member on board the autonomous truck to make deliveries, then we're talking about local delivery services a la UPS - a market that, needless to say, rail does not serve. But if they can build autonomous local delivery trucks, they can also build autonomous long-haul trucks using the same technologies. Whether these technologies are feasible in the short/medium/long term is a whole 'nother discussion. Also, when it comes to long-haul trucks, a driver getting paid $0.35/mile is actually LESS of a cost than fuel at $0.61/mile (based on $4.00/gal and 6.5 average mpg - numbers pulled from a quick google search so they may or may not be accurate, but you get the idea.) So getting the driver out of the picture might not save that much money overall.

Regardless, any technologies developed for autonomous highway vehicles could be adapted to further automate rail. So, if you have to move 100 containers from point A to point B, your choices become "1 autonomous train" versus "100 autonomous trucks". Many of the cost advantages of rail still apply even with the drivers out of the picture. On the other hand, if you have to move 1 container each from point A to points C through ZZ, autonomous trucks could be a game-changer - but rail gave up on that market a long time ago.
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