Mastering Complexity: OTIV and the Autonomous Revolution in Rail

Today, virtually everything we do relies on transportation. Our modern day ability to move goods and people across the world has spurred, among other things, economic development and social progress, and is as such a major driver for human development overall. However, mobility and transportation as we know it is facing a number of challenges. Two of those challenges are particularly pressing: the undeniable impact of transportation on our planet, and the clogging of our networks as they’re currently set up.

The transportation sector accounts for around 20% of global CO2 emissions. So when it comes to the impact on our planet, transportation and mobility are key to reaching the net zero target. This means it’s crucial to understand that for each distance, there’s an optimal way of moving people and goods. And unfortunately, this has been ignored for far too long: we’ve been overutilizing road as our default transport mode, and we’ve become too dependent on airplanes for even the shortest of distances.

This trend directly caused the other pressing challenge of mobility: the way our current network is set up doesn’t prepare it for the future. Our major cities are plagued by traffic jams caused by commuters taking the ‘obvious’ choice of the car and businesses preferring to transport their goods in trucks. The backbone of our transportation system today consists of a network of highways and main roads. The results are devastating, with effects ranging from a decreased quality of life in our cities to a decrease in economic activity –and sometimes both. Take Antwerp (Belgium) as an example: the city boasts one of the largest sea ports in the world, but is also consistently ranked as one of the world’s most congested cities. If the Port of Antwerp aims to sustainably grow and co-exist with the city, it will need to rethink its model.

The situation has reached the point where it’s clear that we need to change and find alternatives. Consequently, billions of dollars are being invested in long term — and sometimes even exotic — mobility solutions. We’ve all heard of them: from electrifying trucks to hyperloop-like initiatives and carbon neutral aircrafts. Each and every one of these technologies has the potential to contribute to solving today’s challenges in the future. But the nature of the challenges we’re facing today is so pressing, so crucial for our world and the quality of our lives, that we can’t wait years to tackle them. And yet the solutions that receive most attention today are far from being ready for large scale deployment, and very often require a large amount of investments and new infrastructure. We need a solution that can be a real game changer today.

And that solution is rail.

THE MODAL SHIFT

In our search for solving mobility challenges, we indeed often overlook rail and the potential it holds: a low-emission transport mode with high capacity for both passenger and freight, and a huge existing network. The perfect candidate for a sustainable modal shift.

At OTIV, our vision is that rail has the potential to become the backbone of the transportation system, complemented with efficient solutions for e.g. first and last mile mobility. This vision holds both for passenger and for freight, and on a macro (inter-)national level as well as a more micro local or urban level.

For urban environments, the vision is clear: consider a light rail or underground rail system as the backbone of your city, helping you to connect the main hubs and feeding into more suitable solutions to bridge the last mile. From (or to, for that matter) that urban rail connection, a number of (shared) solutions can become available: ranging from electric scooters, electric bikes, buses, or taxis. If we think out of the box, this can even work for goods: researchers are working on pilots with cargo trams or cargo metro’s, effectively banning heavy trucks from the city center.

And if you extend the connection to an intercity rail hub, we’re effectively connecting the micro backbone of a city with a more macro backbone on (inter-)national level.

When we take the example of freight, the modal shift is similarly impactful. Improving the connection of major freight hubs (such as ports or large industrial sites) to rail instead of highways and trucks is a major priority. One freight train replaces up to 50 trucks on the road, effectively transporting the same amount of cargo at 6X less energy use, 8X less air pollution and 9X less CO2 emissions.

And yet, in order to make this modal shift a reality, we’ve got work to do. Progress needs to be achieved in cost-efficiency, safety, flexibility and reliability, for rail to reach its full potential. The decades-long underperformance when it comes to efficiency gains compared to road trucking must be reversed, so that rail can become a competitive alternative, capable of meeting growing demands and exceeding expectations.

The only way to realize this much needed step change is through large scale deployment of autonomous technology in rail. And that’s where OTIV comes in.

LEADING THE AUTONOMOUS REVOLUTION IN RAIL

The rail industry is not a stranger to autonomous technology. Take the Paris Metro Line 1 as an example: it’s already entirely driverless. And it’s not the only one of its kind, numerous examples can be found around the world, including the Copenhagen Metro, the Sydney Metro and the Dubai Metro. However, when we take a closer look at more complex environments, the story is quite different.

Unlike the closed and controlled systems that other rail networks can have (i.e. the metro), their counterparts in complex environments have to deal with many external forces. For example, trams or LRVs (Light Rail Vehicles) in urban environments need to face different actors: from pedestrians and bikes to cars and buses. Similarly, industrial sites, such as ports, large shunting yards and heavy industry, have many stakeholders on and around the tracks: workers, trucks, other trains, etc. Be it urban or industrial, complex environments are a challenge because there’s no safety system present in their infrastructure to isolate them from the rest of the world.

With so many variables to consider, the safety risks abound. And yet, unlike other vehicles, these aren’t equipped with the technology that ensures they’re able to face the innate challenges of the environments they were designed to navigate in. At OTIV, we see this as an opportunity to really make a difference, and we made it our goal to change the status quo. With our cutting-edge assistance and autonomous expertise, we developed solutions that make rail vehicles in complex environments safer and more efficient.

Instead of shying away from complexity, we chose to master it.

Our custom algorithms and high-performance sensor suites upgrade rail operations in complex environments. They not only become safer, but also more competitive and reliable. This way, rail vehicles can reach their full potential and become the go-to mobility option for people and goods all over the world.

THE FUTURE ON TRACKS

OTIV is leading the autonomous revolution in rail. But we don’t automate for the sake of automating. We aim to make the world a better place through improved mobility. We envision a future in which the rail component becomes the backbone of entire regions, countries, cities and industries; and we know that autonomous technology is how we’ll make it happen. We do so out of the conviction that rail vehicles have to be smarter to become the mobility game changer that the world needs. It’s how we can better tackle the environmental challenges, the traffic jams, the safety concerns, the driver shortages, and the inefficient and costly operations. Autonomous technology gives us a way forward, and we strive to make a difference where it’s needed the most.

At OTIV, we believe partnership is the only way to achieve these goals in a sustainable way. With every partnership we establish, we’re thrilled to work together with the industry to move in this direction. Through our collaborations with leading companies −including SNCF, ArcelorMittal, NS, DB and ProRail− we’re jointly revolutionizing rail today.

We’ve definitely got exciting days ahead of us, but there’s still work to do. The path to full autonomy requires us to be bold enough to push the boundaries of what currently exists. So we’ll keep on mastering complexity and aiming higher each day.

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OTIV

OTIV

Leading the autonomous revolution in rail