France's TGVs are among the fastest trains in the world, and they may soon be running on autopilot. SNCF, the French national railway operator, wants to have autonomous TGV trains in operation by 2023, according to FranceInfo. It plans to start by testing a prototype "drone train" in 2019, and if that goes well, automated trains could enter regular service.
Matthieu Chabanel, SNCF adjoint director, told FranceInfo that the system will be similar to the autopilots used by commercial airlines. Trains would be equipped with sensors that would allow them to detect obstacles and autonomously apply their brakes, and there would be provisions for them to be monitored by remote operators. Human crews would remain onboard as backups.
Automated trains are not an entirely new idea. San Francisco's BART and other mass-transit services have experimented with different degrees of automation. However, SNCF believes it will be the first to deploy an autonomous high-speed train.
The goal of automation is to increase train frequency. SNCF believes self-driving TGVs could boost the number of trips between Paris and Lyon by 25 percent. TGVs operate on a dedicated right of way for much of their runs, which allows them to achieve speeds approaching 200 mph. But in the area around Paris, they share tracks with conventional trains. That, along with the overall number of trains, creates bottlenecks.
In the U.S., some analysts believe autonomous freight trains will eventually become a reality. They cite the need to compete with self-driving trucks, although said trucks are far from a sure thing. Railroads have been lobbying for one-person freight-train crews, as opposed to the two-person crews currently mandated for most trains. Autonomous trains seem like the next logical step from there, although they will likely face stiff opposition from labor and public-safety advocates.