Secret Autonomous Railroad Pilot Car Testing? Code Name: "Google Pop Car"
For more than two decades, automobile manufacturers have offered radar systems that activate when a driver shifts the transmission into reverse gear. More recently, backup cameras made the leap from large recreational vehicles to many standard sized automobiles. Although an audible beep from a radar sensor is more effective at getting a driver’s attention, federal law now mandates that by 2018, all light vehicles sold in the U.S. shall include a backup camera.
Recently, automobile manufacturers have developed and deployed “adaptive cruise control”, which will slow a vehicle if it approaches too quickly upon another vehicle. If you purchase a new vehicle today, you can add various crash prevention systems, including “lane departure control”, “collision avoidance braking”, “blind spot warnings”, "adaptive headlights" and more. If you add up all of these features and options, you are well on your way to owning a “self-driving car”, as Google likes to call their autonomous driving vehicle (AV).
Until the 1980s, cup holders were relatively unknown in American cars. Until then, few people ate, drank or made telephone calls while driving. With the advent of “cellular radio”, the “car phone” became popular. With the fast food revolution, so too came cup holders, in-vehicle dining and a host of other distractions. Cordless electric shavers brought personal grooming to the average commuter. Lighted makeup mirrors tempted other commuters to touch up their makeup while driving. When heavy traffic slowed vehicles to a crawl, it became common for drivers to read a book or newspaper during their commute.
By the early 2000s, drivers had even more distractions to deal with. With the release of the first Apple iPhone in 2007, smart phones became ubiquitous, if not at all smart. They offered such features as GPS route guidance and text messaging, along with mobile telephone connectivity. Since then, automotive manufacturers raced to integrate evermore communications and entertainment functions into their vehicles. For instance, many new passenger vehicles offer both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as options. With the deployment of all these integrated applications, drivers today have more opportunities for inattentive driving than ever before.
Still, it is important to separate the beneficial features in current automobiles from the frivolous, foolish and purely distracting. To me, crash prevention systems are all for the better. Even so, I do not wish to cede control of my vehicle to a self-driving, autonomous computer system. I have driven automobiles for over fifty years. Call me old fashioned, but I plan to drive and control of my own vehicles until I can no longer qualify for a driver’s license.
According to the L.A. Times, Google, Tesla, Toyota and the other corporations have spent billions of dollars developing their own autonomous vehicles. What these companies forgot to do is to ask if we, the driving public want such a vehicle. My guess is that most drivers would prefer to control their own vehicle, rather than sitting passively while their Google Pop Car drives them to work or play. If most of us do not want Google’s self-driving car, toward what useful purpose could the company turn that investment?
To answer that question, Google need look no farther than three miles from their Googleplex headquarters in Mountain View, California. There, adjacent to the Central Expressway is the Mountain View Station, which serves both Caltrain and Amtrak passenger trains. Developed mainly as a freight railroad in the 1880s, the current passenger rail line stretches from Gilroy to its northern terminus in San Francisco. With the ongoing technology boom in the Bay Area, Caltrain operates ninety-two weekday trains along those tracks.
Today, millions of people work and commute back and forth along the San Francisco Peninsula. Some travel on or parallel to the rail lines, while others cross one of the forty grade-level crossings along that rail line. Since 2005, there have been one hundred fifteen Caltrain-related fatalities registered on that busy rail line. Although a few were accidents, the majority of fatalities were determined to be suicides.
According to the San Francisco Examiner, between August and October 2015, there were eight vehicle collisions with trains, four of which were in Burlingame and three of which were at the same intersection. “Running ninety-two trains per day on a corridor with more than forty roadway crossings presents a unique set of challenges,” Caltrain executive director Jim Hartnett said in a statement. “Those challenges have become more difficult with increased traffic congestion and more drivers, cyclists and pedestrians crossing our tracks on a daily basis.”
In addition to vehicle collisions, many of the fatalities occurred when pedestrians walked into the path of an approaching train. Were these pedestrians “texting while walking”, distracted by their smart phones or did they die in preplanned encounters with diesel locomotives? Although that is unclear, many victims appear to hide and then jump on to the tracks when it is too late to avoid a collision. If architects and planners had the luxury of creating a sealed right of way, like the BART system built in the 1970s, they would do it. With more than one hundred years of history, there is no way to seal off the peninsular rail corridor from either vehicle or pedestrian traffic.
Each time a Caltrain passenger train collides with a motorist or pedestrian, the entire commuter system on the San Francisco Peninsula is negatively affected. Meanwhile, the autonomous vehicle group at Google has an opportunity to help save lives, speed commuter rail service and increase revenue in the process. To do this Google should adapt their various autonomous vehicle sensors to a railroad “pilot car”. If Google starts now, it could quickly develop and deploy what I call the “Google Pop Car” on the Caltrain route. Here is how it would work.
The Google Pop Car would be a lightweight, electrically driven autonomous rail car. It would have sensors and cameras capable of spotting both vehicles and pedestrians on or near the railroad tracks. As a “pilot car”, it would lead the way for each Caltrain passenger train, staying far enough ahead to be the eyes and ears for its following train. In an emergency, the Google Pop Car could remotely activate the Positive Train Control (PTC) system, thus halting the train prior to a collision.
As the Google Pop Car approaches a dangerous grade crossing or detects an errant pedestrian, it could activate its safety lights and train horn. If a Google Pop Car warns a distracted pedestrian or potential suicide victim, they might have time to reconsider their actions. Additionally, the Google Pop Car could stream both video and still pictures to the cab of the following locomotive. Utilizing face recognition software, police agencies could later identify potential perpetrators or simple risk-takers, thus allowing intervention or apprehension.
In my scenario, the Google Pop Car would race ahead to the next grade crossing. Upon approach, it would activate its rotating lights and sound its horn. Once the Google Pop Car had secures the crossing, it could depart, always staying ahead of its assigned passenger train. With proper coordination, the passenger train could maintain a steady speed, while ensuring the safety of both pedestrians and vehicular traffic. In the unlikely event of a collision, a lightweight Google Pop Car, with crash absorbing bumpers would cause minimal damage or destruction.
After thorough testing of the Google Pop Car on the Caltrain line, other rail passenger agencies could adopt the technology. Had Google Pop Car technology been available to Metrolink in Southern California it could have saved many lives. Metrolink experienced eleven fatalities in its 2005 Glendale collision, twenty-five fatalities in its 2008 Chatsworth collision and the death of Senior Engineer Glenn Steele in its February 2015 Oxnard collision.
In the Oxnard collision, the “pilot”, a plow-like anti-derailment blade detached from the Metrolink Hyundai Rotem Cab Car. In September 2015, after realizing that its cab cars were unsafe, the Metrolink board met in a closed (possibly illegal) session to discuss its limited options. Almost immediately, Metrolink announced a decision to lease forty “heavy iron” Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight locomotives. Rather than exploring new safety technologies such as the Google Pop Car, Metrolink will rely on outmoded, conventional thinking. In coming months, inefficient, high-pollution BNSF freight locomotives will head-up all Metrolink passenger trains. In an “overkill” scenario designed to eradicate errant pedestrians and vehicles, Metrolink will rely on the tonnage of BNSF locomotives.
Essentially all of the technology to produce, test and implement an autonomous railroad pilot car exists today. What is lacking in urban passenger rail systems such as Caltrain and Metrolink is a willingness to embrace the new technologies available for collision avoidance. Moribund and ossified thinking by politically controlled passenger rail agencies guarantees that California will continue to lead the nation in deadly rail collisions along its passenger rail corridors.