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France Partners with Hitachi and Bosch to Launch Autonomous Trains

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【Summary】The two-part program entails the development of autonomous trains for heavy freights and daily commutes for passengers.

Michael Cheng    Sep 18, 2018 10:10 AM PT
France Partners with Hitachi and Bosch to Launch Autonomous Trains
author: Michael Cheng   

In the coming years, autonomous platforms will revolutionize numerous modes of transportation, including cars, boats and trains. In the railway services sector, driverless trains will make rides smoother, safer and less costly to operate.

France is the latest country to reveal plans to develop driverless trains. The announcement is very timely; as local officials have been dealing with several accounts of union strikes against the country's national railway company (SNCF) throughout the year. Over 146,000 employees have joined together to rise up against the French railway operator.

New Projects and Partners

To get development going, the government formed a group of leaders and businesses with expertise in the field of driverless transportation. In the initial phase of the program, France has gathered the following participants: Alstom, Altran, Hitachi-Ansaldo and Apsys (Airbus). The parties will focus on building a prototype model for transporting freight.  

In the next phase of the program, the following groups will develop an autonomous train prototype for passengers: Bombardier, Bosch, Spirops and Thales. The railway system must be capable of servicing regional routes in the country.

As there is currently a lack of standardized guidelines for self-driving trains in France, local officials have teamed up with Deutsche Bahn to formulate relevant regulations. The Germany-based railway operator is one of the largest transport brands in the world. Founded in 1994, over two billion passengers use the company's services each year.

"With autonomous trains, all the trains will run in a harmonized way and at the same speed," explained Guillaume Pepy, Chairman at SNCF.

"The train system will become more fluid. Railways are an open system, and the unexpected is the rule."

The entire project is expected to cost around $66 million. To streamline funding, the French government and the SNCF will pledge 30 percent each of the forecasted amount (combined total of $39.6 million). The participants of the program will collectively provide the remaining 40 percent, which is worth roughly $26.4 million.

Timeline and Scaling

The SNCF wants to deploy semi-autonomous trains by 2023, which will be capable of accelerating and decelerating without human assistance. However, human operators must still be present inside the control room for safety. By 2025, France intends to release fully driverless trains. The units will take on regional routes and intercity connections.

"The digital transformation of the network and signal system will make it possible for more and better trains to circulate," said Patrick Jeantet President of SNCF Network.

"It is essential to develop autonomous trains. It will make us a champion of digital industry."

At the moment, there are autonomous subway systems operating in France. However, technological challenges prevent the units from being used above ground. The new trains currently under heavy development will be equipped with cameras, sensors and LIDAR components to identify obstacles.

According to the SNCF, autonomous trains will offer a plethora of benefits for local residents and daily commuters. The company cited that delays and service disruptions can be minimized, with enhanced schedules. Moreover, the units would consume less energy during operation.

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