Driverless Personalised Trains Available 24/7...Is the RailCab Project the Future of Transport?

23/04/2012 09:26 BST | Updated 19/06/2012 10:12 BST

By: Wilhelm Schäfer

Imagine a future where you simply press a button to have your own personal railway car waiting, day or night, to whisk you off at many times the speed of a car. And environmentally friendly, too! This is what we are designing in the 'RailCab' project.

Trains have many advantages compared to the car. They are far more efficient, they don't get stuck in traffic jams, and they're very safe. But what if you want to have the privacy or luggage capacity of a car? What if you live a long way from a station?

Both good questions, and fundamental to our development of RailCabs: small car-sized trains, that run according to your demand rather than a schedule. On the tracks these individual vehicles can cruise alone or in convoy for increased aerodynamics. The software we've created allows them to move with ease between different convoys, joining up and breaking off from the pack depending on route and final destination.

This convoy system also makes RailCabs extremely efficient - equalling even the TransRapid MagLev train (the German high-speed monorail train which uses magnetic levitation) when in a group of four - using as little as 50% of the energy of a normal train. And unlike a train, which becomes inefficient when it's empty, such as at night, we only run units when they are to be moved, so performance is good across the board.

One of the other factors in this efficiency are the mechatronic wheels. RailCab wheels are on software-guided independent axles, enabling them to sense the changes in the track ahead and be steered in perfect alignment. Ever hear your commuter train's wheels screech as it goes around a sharp bend? This drag, not to mention mechanical damage, is what our axles eliminate in RailCab.

The benefits are social, as well as technological. Small villages could have as good a rail service as large cities. Trains could run in the small hours when they currently do not because of low demand and conditions for drivers. Nor would you have to wait for trains, as they would run to your schedule rather than their own. There would be no need to change trains, as you could travel from a village in Hampshire straight to the Stratford Olympic village, for example. In your private car, you would have all the safety advantages of regular taxis, but far faster and with none of the fossil fuels and inefficiency.

How many times have your trains been delayed 'because of a signal failure'? When a centralised system fails, it affects the journeys of everyone. The RailCabs do not depend on a central regulator deciding track directions, like a conventional train, and instead guide themselves onto the correct tracks, more like cars do. The cars run autonomously, on individual software that is connected through a network - like a sort of Internet on wheels.

At the moment, RailCabs are only running on a 40% scale track in the University of Paderborn, but RailCab is not something for the distant future. We chose wheeled trains because tracks are easy to lay and in many cases already exist - unlike MagLev, which requires very expensive infrastructure to work at all. Although the only RailCabs for now are miniature, the use of existing tracks means that with government backing, the system could start running in as little as ten years.

Wilhelm Schäfer spoke with four other brilliant technical innovators for Intelligence Squared's Energy Game Changers at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London on 28 March. The event was part of the Switched On live events series with Shell and the International Herald Tribune.

Click here to watch the event in full YouTube.

Professor Wilhelm Schäfer is Vice-President Research of the University of Paderborn and Executive Director of the RailCab project