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Autonomous Systems on rails

The Japanese Bullet Train is becoming autonomous. In the photo, the East Japan Railway Co. conducts a test run of an autonomously operated bullet train in the city Niigata on November 17th, 2021. Image credit: KYODO

A month ago I reported on the plan to activate a fully autonomous train in Hamburg on the S-Bahn by Deutsche Bahn (it will start operation in the first week of December 2021). Now I spotted a news of testing in Japan the possibility to have the Bullet train (operating at 300+kmh) in an autonomous way.

The test was done using an E7 series Shinkansen (watch the clip). The driver flipped a switch and the train kept going autonomously stopping at the depot in the programmed spot. It was actually 8 cm from the “right spot” but still well within he agreed 50 cm tolerance window.

It is just he first test in a long series of planned tests but it shows the intention of the Japan rail system to move towards a fully automated systems with autonomous trains centrally monitored.

Interestingly, the “absence” of human controller on board will be filled with high definition cameras that will provide continuous straming of images to the control centre. The transmission will make use of the 5G network (being deployed along all the rails). It will be impossible for he centre to watch in parallel what is going on inside the hundreds of trains in operation, so I guess that image recognition software (AI based) will have to take responsibility for monitoring the video feeds.

Most likely Automation and Big Brothers will go hand in hand. For sure we are facing a different world where we need to trust machines and who is providing machines with the operation framework. Nothing really different from today, where we already are trusting that the automatic systems on the plane we are flying and the automatic ground control are doing their job, particularly as the plane lands with zero visibility in the fog.  So, nothing new, just a bit more so…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.