“Step by step”

“Step by step”

Lorries and trains that transport goods autonomously without needing people to drive or load them are a nice idea, to be sure – but how close is this vision of self-driving road and rail freight transport to becoming reality? TÜV NORD has expertise in both fields: Katrin Leicht, Project Manager for Autonomous Driving ­Automotive, and Dr. Hans Vallée, railway expert, talk in this interview about potentials and problems from the point of view of an expert organisation that is working with the parties involved to make this aspiration real.


It’s been happening for a long time on the smallest of small scales: In Miniatur Wunderland Hamburg, the world’s largest model railway, lorries and trains bring their goods safely to their destination day after day – without any “people” in their cabs.



Ms. Leicht, Dr. Vallée, what role does auto­nomous driving play in road and rail freight transport?

Dr. Hans Vallée: As far as the railways are concerned, trains will not be running autonomously any time soon. There’s no doubt that this would be possible in technical terms. But it isn’t compatible with the operating procedures of rail transport on mainline routes.


What does that mean?

HV: Autonomous means that a vehicle independently looks for its own route. To put it in simple terms, it finds its way wherever there’s space, for example by switching to a trunk road if there’s a traffic jam on the motorway. But that won’t work with the railways. Rail transport is organised centrally: Trains run according to timetables, they can’t simply switch to another route; after all, the rail network isn’t that large in most countries. This means that self-driving trains are only really conceivable in self-contained places. These would include depots or marshalling yards, when the task at hand is to sort wagons autonomously – and this is going to be possible with the help of the digital automatic coupling system (DAC), which Deutsche Bahn is soon going to be switching over to for freight transport operations.


Ms. Leicht, what’s the situation with self-driving freight transport by road?

Katrin Leicht: When it comes to distinguishing between autonomous and automated traffic on the road, we follow the SAE autonomy levels. A level 5 vehicle would be completely autonomous; in this case, the system would take over all the driving tasks. In practice, however, this level is going to be a pipe dream for the foreseeable future, even in freight transport, because it would mean that a cargo vehicle would have to find its way on any terrain, in all traffic scenarios and under all possible environmental conditions. And this is where the technology bumps up against its limits, at least at the moment.  

“My impression is that having a person in the driver’s cab is going to be unbeatable in terms of efficiency for the time being.”

Dr. Hans Vallée, TÜV NORD Systems

Which SAE level are we already seeing in practical use today?

KL: Level 4 – here, the system must be able to cope without a driver in a previously defined area. We at TÜV NORD run a two-stage check to establish whether the vehicle has the properties it would need for Level 4 automation and whether it can actually move independently along its envisaged route. 

There are still technical challenges, especially at the heart of the autonomous systems, which need to be able to correctly identify relevant objects and situations in the environment and react appropriately to them. Here’s an example from our tests: A large dandelion growing on the side of the road may be detected by the system as a potential obstacle, causing the vehicle to stop. Not only that, but the network coverage with both GPS and the 5G mobile communications standard is far from ideal. But reliable localisation accuracy across the board would be required. 

What potential freight transport applications do you see for road or rail vehicles that are fully automated or might one day even be autonomous?

KL: One area with potential is platooning, by which I mean driving several connected vehicles together at short intervals. But there are still a lot of questions to answer here too.

HV: Platooning opens up the possibility for logistics companies to reserve certain time corridors on fixed routes. For example, a convoy of trucks with a lead vehicle and automated follow-up vehicles might drive from Hamburg to Berlin at a fixed time every Thursday night.

So, there would be a timetable for these lorry trains, like you get on the railway?

HV: Exactly. And you can already see on some motorways that the first overhead lines are being built for long-distance transport, which will allow large lorries to travel on electrical power alone. Here, too, the principle is similar to that of rail transport: The lorries are manoeuvred into place at the beginning of their motorway journey, and the only route they can possibly take is to follow the overhead power lines. When you look at these ideas, however, the question arises as to what motorway lanes will end up looking like if convoys of heavy lorries stick rigidly to them for years on end.


Would fully automated freight transport ­actually be that efficient?

HV: As far as trains are concerned, that’s a fair question. Trains are a means of mass transport, and a freight train pulls dozens of wagons. In this process, is the person driving the locomotive really such a massive cost factor that they have to be replaced by the introduction of complex and expensive technology? My impression is that having a person in the driver’s cab is going to be unbeatable in terms of efficiency for the time being.


Ms. Leicht, are professional drivers also ­unbeatable in road transport?

KL: To replace them, we would likewise need complex and expensive technology. And people are still needed because we have to have control centres in which employees monitor the movement of goods. The advantage, however, is that for most people these jobs are more socially acceptable than being a professional long-distance trucker who covers thousands of kilometres on motorways. We shouldn’t underestimate this factor, especially as we can see right now how dire the shortage of lorry drivers already is.

Let’s turn our attention from motorways to cities, which get heavily congested with ­delivery traffic. Could automated or autonomous transports help here, like the people movers that are already in use in passenger transport?

KL: First of all, freight transport has an advantage over passenger transport: There are no passengers on board to take care of and keep an eye on, and you also don’t have a lot of stops where people get on or off. Cities and manufacturers are testing possible applications for self-driving people movers in pilot projects, and, in my view, we should think more about how these vehicles could also be used to transport goods.

HV: The disadvantage of “freight movers” like these is that, unlike human passengers, the cargo won’t load and unload itself independently. So, there need to be systems that will regulate the departure and reception criteria for automated delivery transport. But there have only been very few developments in this area to date. A lot is being done to ensure that automated driving is a success, but sorting out the actual route travelled by goods vehicles is at most half the battle. What happens to the goods before and after is at least as important.

Ms. Leicht, Dr. Vallée, are there synergy ­effects within the TÜV NORD GROUP in your fields of work?

KL: Yes, there’s been a lot of action here in the past few years. For example, I’m in contact with some companies, including TÜVIT, for instance. We get the lowdown on research projects, meet at conferences, exchange knowledge where colleagues from the rail sector are also present. So we all benefit from the definite synergy effects. At the same time, of course, we also rely on highly effective networking in our own business unit, e.g. for software updates and cybersecurity.

HV: The connection with TÜVIT is crucial because software and security are key issues. The challenge will be to secure the communication channels between vehicles or between a vehicle and its control centre; to ensure that no one hacks into the system from their bedroom and causes chaos or accidents.


What role is TÜV NORD playing in the movement towards full automation and autonomous driving on rail and road?

HV: In the railway sector, we at TÜV NORD are looking at what our customers want to achieve in this area so that we can then clarify the question of whether the technical development is safe enough in areas like security and operations – or whether there are areas where the customer needs to take a closer look.

KL: In the road sector, we aren’t so much drivers as supporters of the development. We see ourselves as an institution that will take an objective view of this issue. We’re often confronted with future scenarios that predict rapid progress. Our role is to stay realistic and identify the gaps that still need to be filled. Appropriate test methods have to demonstrate that systems of this sort are safe and secure enough before they get placed on the market. The routes on which automated vehicles travel must be appropriate for the vehicle and its autonomous capabilities. Which is where TÜV NORD enters the picture: The media are shouting about rapid progress, and we don’t want to slow down this progress but to make it safe. The matter is so complex that it’s advisable to proceed step by step.

“We should think more about how autonomous people movers in cities could also be used to transport goods.”

Katrin Leicht, TÜV NORD Mobilität