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From “railways” to “paintways”

Driverless train (or bus?) in China using painted signs on the tarmac as rails. Image credit: CRRC

How would you call a railway where the rails are replaced by paint? Probably not “paintways” but that’s the best I was able to come up to get your attention…

4 years ago CRRC, a Chinese company manufacturing trains and trams came up with the idea of replacing the rail with signs painted on the tarmac, relying on an image recognition system on board of the train to follow the painted tracks. Artificial intelligence is powering the image recognition system and AI has made huge progress in the last years.

Now the idea, and the prototype, has turned into a commercial service for the city of Zhuzhou, China, where those trains are manufactured.

The underlying technology is that of autonomous vehicles (CRRC calls them ART: Autonomous Rail Transit) that relies for most part of its travel on the hints provided by the painted segments (watch the clip) on the tarmac. However, in case of an obstacle on the “virtual” rails the vehicle can take a diversion and go back to the virtual rails once the obstacle has been circumvented.

The advantage of this system is its flexibility and the much lower cost involved in painting a track as opposed to building a track. It is more than a gain in cost reduction. it is also a huge gain in speed. Painting a track is way faster than building one.

This is an example of how technology can transform transportation. The provisioning of protected lanes, where possible, along with painted tracks, greatly simplify the job for the autonomous vehicle and makes possible to have today what technology will deliver in a few more years.

It is now starting operation in China, but there are a number of cities in other Countries that are following the result of operation, ready to adopt this solution at home.

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 New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. 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.