Letter to the Editor: Autonomous Railcars

This letter to the Editor appears in the Dec.1 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Autonomous Railcars

I was asked by a top consulting firm what I see as the future of autonomous vehicles as it relates to the trucking industry. I have never been asked such a futuristic question in all my years in trucking.

The first thing I think will happen is large-scale tests that do not involve the public and pub-lic highways to prove that autonomous technology is safe.

The best place to do that would be on the nation’s railroad system. Instead of running long trains pulled by diesel power, what if autonomous and electronically connected individual railcars were moving on the railroad tracks?  The power and electronic brains for each railcar would be a turbine autonomous power unit or TAPU. Why waste energy trying to get power to the wheels when each railcar can become a rocket sled with as little as a 100-horsepower turbine jet engine?

This network on the rails could then become an even bigger part of the trucking system. A complete tractor-trailer with driver would be driven onto a flatbed railcar connected to a TAPU and be driven autonomously as close to the final destination as possible while the driver is in the TAPU’s sleeping compartment.

This system would keep freight moving during the time off required by hours-of-service regulations. The driver would be awakened at the nearest rail siding to his destination and finish the delivery.

Bob Rutherford

Consultant to Auburn University

Office of Technology Transfer

Rutherford & Co.


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