A (half hearted) defence of Autonomous Vehicles and other transport innovations


Over recent years it has almost become the norm amongst practicing railway engineers to pour scorn on any new transport proposal that emerges – for example Hyperloop, the autonomous metro system, being developed for Cambridgeshire, autonomous vehicles in general, vehicle platoons, bus rapid transit schemes and so on. Now whilst some new concepts deserve all the opprobrium that they receive and are often ideas looking for an application rather than the more sensible opposite, I want to argue in this post, that there is some merit in some of these concepts that deserves further consideration, particular as components of a rail based public transport network.

Before proceeding however, I need to be a little more explicit about those concepts that I do not believe are viable. These fall within two categories – very high- speed tube transport, and autonomous vehicles in mixed traffic situations. The former, exemplified by the monstrosity that is Hyperloop, faces very major technical difficulties. From my own aerodynamic perspective these include the difficulties of maintaining a controlled vacuum along very long tubes, and the highly complex unsteady forces that exists as flow speeds around some parts of the passenger capsule exceed the speed of sound i.e. locally supersonic flow with the Mach number >1.  With regard to the latter, I have seen no published information that these effects have been properly considered. Formidable as these technical issues are, they are of small concern in terms of the major practical issues of capacity (multiple tubes would be required to give the same capacity as high-speed trains); and safety (how these tubes would be evacuated in terms of an accident or fire). In these terms the concept is flawed.

Much of the hype concerning autonomous vehicles has been around the possibility of them providing door to door service with no human involvement in driving. I used to be of the view that this was a possible, if very long term, aim. I no longer think that that is the case, primarily for reasons of liability and safety. If there is an accident (as there will be) who is to blame – the passenger, the owner of the vehicle; the manufacturer; the software designer etc.? Who would wish to accept responsibility for injuries and fatalities? I believe that this consideration alone will cause the development of high levels of autonomy in private vehicles to stall – again when designers and engineers are faced with practical realities. I fear that autonomous vehicles are in the main “toys for the tech boys”. And they are boys – look at any AV website and count the relative number of males and females.

Having thus been dismissive of these two areas, let us proceed to think about those novel transport concepts that might have an application.

What are the viable concepts?

The two specific areas where I believe there might be possibilities of large-scale usage are in the field of tracked autonomy and platoons for public transport use.

Whilst I have doubts concerning the use autonomous vehicles on public highways, their use on restricted systems (let us call them tracks) seems to me less problematic. Such systems already exist in busways and bus metro concepts. Whilst many good railway folk would shout loudly that these would be better replaced by light railways or trams, these systems do have the distinct advantage in some areas of going where passengers wish to go rather than to some remote railway station – Cambridge is the classic example of this where the busway from St Ives allows buses to originate at a range of departure points in north Cambridgeshire, use the busway for the majority of the journey, and then end their journey in the city close to their place of work. Similar autonomous systems could equally be conceived, where the vehicle operate in a driverless mode whilst using the tracked system, with reduced staffing costs and redirection of staffing effort towards passenger care and revenue collection. If autonomous vehicles are restricted in this way, then the guidance system could be very much simpler than those currently proposed, with either short range infrastructure mounted wireless systems every few hundred yards or embedded in the tracked pavement.

The other novel area that has potential for significant use is the concept of platooning, particularly when combined with the idea of tracked autonomy. Autonomous tracked systems can in principle easily be configured to operate as platoons with the headway between vehicles along the platoon being controlled by the leading vehicle. Whist close platoon running will reduce aerodynamic drag and lead to reduced fuel use, the major advantage would be scalability, in that the capacity of such systems could be increased easily by adding extra vehicles in platoon, without a corresponding increase in staffing resource required.

Autonomous Platoon Transport (APT)

These thoughts lead me to propose a new hybrid concept, which I will refer to as Autonomous Platoon Transport  (APT), largely because I rather like the acronym and its associations. APT would have the following components.

  • Self-powered vehicles (almost certainly electric, but I would be open to hydrogen power if only to further irritate some of my rail readers) that have the ability to operate as ordinary vehicles on public roads, or as autonomous vehicles on reserved track. I would envisage a typical vehicle capacity to be around 30 to 40.
  • A simple paved road, single carriageway track (with passing places) with suitable guidance sensors either at trackside or embedded within the pavement – this would be much cheaper and easier to construct than a light railway or tramway.
  • These would operate as driven vehicles away from the reserved track, and as autonomous vehicles, either individually or in platoons, on the reserved track.
  • In principle vehicles could be either passenger or freight, although the latter might make significant demands upon pavement design. The operation of freight APTs would be of a different nature to those for passengers, and I won’t consider then further in this post.

I make no claims that such a concept would replace existing public transport systems, but I will argue in what follows that there are some circumstances where it could complement such systems.

Possible passenger applications

Conventional rail and tram systems have obvious advantages for long distance travel and for travel within major conurbations and meet the journey time and capacity requirements well. The specific areas where APT systems might have a role is where there is large variation of demand either geographically (with many small trip origins) or temporally (with large seasonal variations), or where there are major capital cost constraints that mitigate against the use of conventional rail.

First consider geographical constraints. The type situation here is that of Cambridge and its regions – and indeed the APT system bears a strong resemblance to the proposed Cambridge Autonomous Metro system, although with the use of driver-controlled vehicles at its outer limbs and autonomous platoon running in the central region. Here there is a large, dispersed commuter demand around the city that cannot be met economically by conventional systems but could potentially be met by the cheaper infrastructure required for APT operation. Cambridge is a special case in that the historic nature of the centre requires the hub of the system to be underground, but there are many other towns and cities of a similar size and with similar characteristics, where the central routes, where platoon operation would be in place, would be at surface level.

Typical temporally constrained routes would be rail routes with generally low local usage, but high usage in the summer months – such as coastal branch lines, where overcrowding, often to very unpleasant levels, can occur. The advantage of an APT system would be that it would be easily scalable in terms of capacity without the need for an increase in staffing resource. Whilst the base service might be operated by one APT vehicle, with a driver or passenger manager, this would be supplemented in peak times by other vehicles in platoon – perhaps diverted from those towns and cities with geographical constraints but where demand falls during the summer months and a reduced service is all that is required. This has implications concerning the nature of the infrastructure – either such lines need to be converted to operate in this mode, with paved instead of rail formations, or a new track needs to be constructed along the route, or a hybrid paved / track formation needs to be developed. I suspect the latter would prove to be a challenge, but could allow rail usage when appropriate, although new types of control and safety system would be required. This will bring accusations that I am a closet supporter of converting railways to roads. But no, I am not funded by the TPA (or anyone else come to that) – I am simply interested in providing the most appropriate services for customers that gets them to their destination in reasonable comfort and security. (Interestingly note the reversal in order of acronyms from APT to TPA – a device commonly used in Satanic circles I understand).

The third use of such a system might be in the re-use of old railway lines where rail re-instatement is simply not possible because of major track obstructions / loss of infrastructure. As an example, we might consider the Penrith – Keswick – Workington route in Cumbria. Here an APT system could be used along the existing trackway where this is still in place, with on road / driver sections where major infrastructure no longer exists – primarily in this case at the start and end of the route. Local demand would be small, but the much larger seasonal demand could be met by again scaling the number of vehicles and using platoon running for most of the route.

Finally, the concept could be applied to longer routes where there are both geographical and temporal constraints. A typical case here might be the Cambrian Coat line, where demand is highly seasonal. There are also geographical constraints in the dispersed nature of the communities it serves, and the lack of connectivity to surrounding areas. Thus for example one could envisage the base demand could be met by APT vehicles in short platoons, but joining and leaving the platoons at different places to more directly serve surrounding areas – for example at Harlech to serve the town and connect to Blaenau Ffestiniog, or at Porthmadoc, to again serve the town and to connect to Caernarfon. Such a scheme would rely on a hybrid track form, in order that through trains could operate to Birmingham and that the large summer demand could be met. Again there would be design and operational challenges.

Final thoughts

I suspect many will disagree with some or all of what I have written in this post – hopefully in a civil fashion. And of course all I have written is provisional and might not survive translation into a practical reality. All I would hope is that it encourages discussion of the use of novel transport systems, and how they might complement a modern transport network, rather than simply dismissing them.

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