26 Sep 18

Autonomous Tram in Potsdam

Last week an autonomous tram drove on the streets of Potsdam, Germany, adding another milestone to the development of autonomous vehicles. 

The city of Potsdam launched the world’s first autonomous trams in collaboration with Siemens. Equipped with multiple radar, lidar, and camera sensors, the tram has to find its way through the real city context, surrounded by unpredictable movements of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorised vehicles. 

Moreover, the tram has to react to trackside signals among other traffic signals and has to be able to react faster than a human. To make a statement, the testing group pushed a pram in front of the tram. The tram reacted immediately, braked, and continued its journey automatically once the pram was removed. Statement made.

Safety first

The main advantage of autonomous trams is safety, which is the reason why some other companies such as Bombardier and Bosch Engineering were already developing autonomous systems for trams and LRVs. 

Bombardier developed an Obstacle Detection Assistance System in 2013 and launched it into full passenger service with Frankfurt am Main operator Verkehrsgesellschaft Frankfurt (VGF) in August 2015. If the cameras detect an obstacle when scanning the track, they give audible and visual warnings. If no action is taken by the driver, the brakes will be applied. Bosch’s technology is based on its experience in the automotive sector and can detect obstacles up to 80m away. Bosch’s system has two variants, the first provides an audible and visible warning for the driver, forcing the driver to react. The second can automatically apply the brakes if no action is taken by the driver, although he can intervene. 

The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London has been operating driverlessly since it opened in 1987; and has only had one (non-fatal) derailment due to the autopilot since. Or what about aviation, where the autopilot was invented back in 1914. 

Trams and the City

So far, most autonomous vehicles, especially for public transit, run in a kind of protected area, such as closed-off tunnels on airports and underground railways, free of unpredictable circumstances, such as crossing pedestrians, weather circumstances, and other vehicles.

Autonomous trams in a city, on the other hand, are another story. They have to deal with the same problems driverless cars have to deal with. Precisely detecting and identifying the technological challenges of autonomous driving under real-life conditions is the main purpose of this project. 

Siemens and public transport operator ViP could develop and test new solutions to cope with these challenges, bringing autonomous technology to the next level and autonomous trams closer to the city.

Image: autonomous Siemens tram in Potsdam (source: Siemens)

Authored by: Fien Van den steen