“The future of transport is electric”

Jochen Eickholt Siemens Mobility CEOJochen Eickholt, the CEO of Siemens Mobility, talks about electric highways and bus networks and creating cities full of sensors that link up cars with their surroundings.

One of your projects at Siemens is electrifying motorways, so electric trucks can be used for long-distance freight, without even requiring batteries. Why are you convinced that the “eHighway”, as you call it, is the future of road freight?

Transport remains the last sector where fossil fuel dependency has not been substantially mitigated, making it a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. Electric mobility offers a variety of benefits here, including improved local air quality, fuel diversification into renewable sources to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, and increased energy efficiency to lower operating costs. The eHighway combines resource-efficient railway technology with the flexibility of road transport.

How does this work in practice?

The adapted hybrid trucks are supplied with electricity from overhead contact lines. An active pantograph can automatically connect and disconnect with the contact line at speeds up to 90 km/h. The direct transmission of electric energy ensures an outstanding efficiency of 80 to 85 per cent from substation in-feed to the wheel. This is twice as high as that of conventional diesel engines. The eHighway also makes it possible to recover braking energy and store it on-board. It can also feed other trucks operating on the system or even feed the electricity back into the public grid. These energy savings translate into even higher system efficiency, lower emissions, and lower energy consumption. High efficiency is the backbone of future road freight transport as well as decarbonisation.

Talking about electric mobility, would you agree that it will play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions of  passenger transport?

The future of transport is electric, whether by rail or by road.  For metros, light rail and high-speed trains  electrification has been established for many years as a way to ensure highest energy efficiency while  minimizing local emissions. With the ongoing electrification of railroads all over the world, rail traffic has become increasingly emission free. According to a recent study by the International Railway Union (UIC), rail is the most emissions-efficient major transport mode. Electric trains powered by renewable energy can offer practically carbon-free journeys and transport.

In cities, eBuses will play a role similar to the one I just described for the eHighway and hybrid-driven trucks. They offer the same advantages -energy efficiency, local zero emissions and, thanks to modern control systems, an improved travel experience for passengers. This is why they are in a good position to help satisfy the increasing demand for sustainable transport solutions in cities at a time when growing transport volumes and limited expansion possibilities for transport routes pose ever more serious problems.

What kind of innovations do engineers have in store to make electrified public transport a regular sight?

It is possible for instance to equip buses with a flexible Offboard High Power Charger, which adds considerable flexibility to eBus services. The buses need to stop at the charging station only for a few minutes. The system is ideal for high-frequency operations, since the charging infrastructure can be used by several buses per hour. It would even work if the vehicles were produced by different manufacturers. This is no scenario for the distant future; in fact the system’s practical feasibility in daily operation is already being demonstrated – for instance in Vienna, Gothenburg or Hamburg.

Offboard High Power charger
Offboard High Power Charger in Hamburg (Foto: Siemens)

Everyone is talking about self-driving vehicles. What is your take on autonomous driving?

The next step in the evolution of green, safe and efficient public transport on roads will be self-driving shuttle buses. At present there are several pilot projects under way, in areas such as university campuses and still operating with a driver as a back-up. Over the long run, electric-powered self-driving cars will be the new norm for individual and shared traffic in our cities. They are safe, emission-free and silent. But there is still a long way to go – infrastructures are not ready for that phase yet.


Cr2X screenshot

What needs to happen in terms of infrastructure?


Today, self-driving cars run well only under certain conditions,-  in a controlled environment and when the weather is right. The sensors fail when it rains or snows; and they also fail when the sun is too bright. Ans even though they already are quite powerful, sensors can’t see around the corner or through an object that is blocking the sensors sight. Today, the human driver serves as a “redundancy system” that makes up for these defects. But without someone at the wheel, the self-driving car would have only one option: to switch to safe mode in uncertain situations. This is not acceptable, because it means having to reduce speed radically or even stopping. Neither alternative is compatible with traffic regulations and the requirement not to hinder the flow of traffic. And, even worse, passengers wouldn’t accept driving in a slow and stuttering vehicle.

Overcoming these restrictions first of all needs a different perspective. We need to move from a car-centered approach to a systemic approach. There have to be sensors not only in the cars, but on the road as well to monitor and process what’s going on there – and communicate what they see to the cars. Similarly, cars need to communicate with one another and with the infrastructure around them. The combination of  complementary roadside sensor networks, a reliable real-time communication network such as 5G, and autonomous electric-powered cars will form a systemic transport net for future cities. But without the appropriate infrastructure, such a vision will remain  science fiction.

Jochen Eickholt leads the Mobility Division of global engineering giant Siemens AG. He studied electrical engineering at Aachen Technical University in Germany and Imperial College London, UK. He was appointed CEO of the Rail Automation Business Unit in 2009 and became CEO of the Mobility Division in 2012. On 31 May 2017 he will join ministers and other leaders for a discussion of  “The governance of transport in the digital economy” in the opening plenary of  ITF’s 2017 Summit on “Governance of Transport”


Driving from a distance

How remote-controlled trucks could pave the way towards fully automated driving

José Viegas, Secretary-General, International Transport Forum

driving-distance-remote-controlled-trucksAre we going to be comfortable letting go of the steering wheel? Many car makers and technology companies are betting on it. A flurry of recent announcements is predicting that driverless cars and taxis will be on our cities streets within five years. Uber just began a pilot of self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla’s latest business plan clearly targets “fully self-driving” vehicles, and Ford is gearing up for mass market driverless car production by 2021.

Much less media attention has been devoted to a related issue: the possibility that driverless trucks will soon be roaming our roads. For this scenario the key question is a slightly different one: Are we ready to share the roads with dozens of tonnes of steel when there is no human in charge?

Once it becomes available, the operating flexibility and cost reductions from driverless operations offer trucking companies and their customers a strong carrot for its adoption. The International Transport Forum estimates that on long-distance routes driverless trucks could be operated with a cost advantage of 30% or more compared to conventional manned trucks. The advantages for hauliers are obvious: Drivers represent the biggest chunk of operational costs and at the same time a constraint on using trucks at full capacity – they do need breaks to rest, after all. Taking humans from the cabin means trucks could operate all day and night without having to stop, except for refuelling.

When machines take over

There are many issues that need to be solved before driverless technology can be cleared for use on public roads. Some are technical and need to be resolved by engineers and computer scientists. Others are public policy issues: Governments need to make the call as to when the machines can take over. This involves deciding how and when driverless truck systems demonstrate lower (real and perceived) risks of crashes than the current situation with humans doing the driving – and especially that they do not fail in situations that humans would normally handle well.

No driving system can ever be 100 per cent safe, whether humans or computerised systems are in charge. But in well-defined situations – for instance on motorways, where there is no crossing traffic and speeds are similar – automation technology may soon safely handle driving tasks for 99.9% or even 99.99% of driving time. But can there be a clear-cut percentage or success rate for allowing operation without a driver in the cabin that would satisfy the safety concerns of regulators (or of road users, for that matter)?

In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently published guidelines on automated vehicles. These provide an early indication about how it will judge when the machines are ready to take over. The US approach appears to be that driverless vehicle developers will be required to set out clearly how their vehicles respond to given situations (such as a loss of communications) and how they comply with each road rule.

A matter of feelings

Yet accepting robot trucks is not solely about rule compliance and crash probabilities. It also has a highly subjective dimension. That humans systematically overestimate their own driving skills is a well-documented fact. The result of this, among other factors, is 1.25 million road deaths every year on the world’s roads. Objectively, machines will probably be able to do better soon. Yet public acceptance may well depend more on how people would feel if they heard on the news that a 32-tonne semi-trailer with no human driver in the cabin had been involved in a fatal crash. Regardless of the actual crash performance of driverless trucks, the idea might well be scuttled if the public’s perception is dominated by unease, fed by rare but highly publicised crashes.

It is thus worth thinking about ways to move towards driverless trucks and the benefits they provide while reassuring the community that machines haven’t taken over. Three options warrant consideration.

The first is so-called platooning. In a truck platoon, several vehicles form a closely-spaced convoy in which only the lead truck has a human driver who navigates traffic. The following trucks are linked to the lead truck by wireless data links and automatically maintain a safe distance with the vehicle in front. If the trailing vehicles were allowed to operate without driver, quite significant cost savings would be possible. Although platooning has received a great deal of attention, e.g. from the European Union, the need to co-ordinate drivers and vehicles may make it less attractive than fully automated driving. Controlling “centipede” configurations of vehicles will also introduce new challenges for truck drivers as well as the other drivers on the same road.

Handing over control

A second transition option is that of part-time human control: Drivers remain obligatory on all trucks, but their role is reduced to taking over from computerised systems when unexpectedly difficult driving situations arise. Such passive driving technology is well-advanced: Truck manufacturer Daimler is testing driver-assisted automated trucks on the highways of Nevada in the US.

This will help build experience with autonomous driving, yet the approach also has its limitations. Most importantly, the hand-over between machine and human is particularly risky. The driver still needs to pay full attention and be ready to act at all times – so while his task may be less strenuous, he will still need rest. With machines in charge most of the time, there is of course the risk the driver will not always be ready to take over quickly enough. Not least, the need to have drivers on board means there is no significant reduction of operating costs, making this option less attractive to hauliers.

A third option is remote driving. Imagine control rooms where professional drivers are set up in a cabin-like environment that closely mimics the information and tools available in a real truck. These drivers would remotely monitor and control a number of otherwise self-driving trucks and intervene, taking manual control of steering, indicating, accelerating and braking, when and where needed. The relatively low complexity of driving on a motorway would make it possible to operate a fleet of trucks with a much lower number of drivers than that of the trucks under their control.

Truck driving as an office job

What sounds like science-fiction is already being tested in the real world, albeit in different contexts. Drones are just the most obvious example: the US Navy is currently in advanced tests of a remotely controlled fighter jet. In maritime shipping, Rolls Royce is working on freight ships controlled from land. In Australia, enormous trucks operating in the iron ore mines of Western Australia are being controlled by drivers in a centre 1 200 kilometres away. In the Netherlands, the remote control room approach is being used for the operation of low-speed driverless WEpod minibuses that operate on the five-kilometre route between the University of Wageningen and the city of Ede. And an Estonian firm is testing small robot vehicles for urban delivery in Washington, London and Hamburg that will be overseen from a control room in Tallinn, thousands of kilometres away.

Driving from a control room has obvious advantages. For the driver, trucking becomes a regular office job similar to that of an air traffic controller. Rather than having to sleep in the truck cabin somewhere in a parking area with no facilities, he can go home to the family at the end of the day. Compared to full automation, the remote driving approach also ensures some continuity of skills, as the best truck drivers redeploy to control centres that offer more stable and comfortable job conditions.

Herding trucks like sheep

In the control room, remote drivers would be alerted by the on-board systems when difficult situations arise on road in which computers perform less well than humans – such as bad weather that hampers sensors, or ambiguous situations a computer cannot easily adjudicate. Initially, the threshold for human intervention would be set low, but with growing experience and self-learning systems it could be raised to a level where the control centre steps in less and less.

A control room (perhaps owned by a truck manufacturer) could begin trials with a high ratio of drivers to trucks, even one-to-one. It would collect data (and share it with the regulator) on how often and under what circumstances drivers have to take over (and how often this occurs simultaneously). If the data shows that interventions from the control centre are sufficiently rare, its operator could gain regulatory approval to gradually bring more trucks under the control of each remote fall-back driver, depending on the risk aversion of the regulator.

Finally, remote controlling does not require the co-ordination of trucks as in the platooning approach; it could be operated anywhere with suitable communications coverage. This raises the challenge for control room operators: They will need to invest in the facilities, on-board systems and communication technology necessary to support remote interventions in a given area. As one-to-one remote operation would not be profitable (but a likely first step), investors would need to be confident that regulators will allow higher truck/driver ratios once safe performance has been demonstrated. But for vehicle manufacturers, the investment as such is easily within their means. And given the cost reduction and performance increase they would offer, the potential demand for remote-controlled trucks is evident.

A feasible path

The control centre model for driverless trucking on motorways seems to be a feasible path towards fully-automated trucks. It would also be directly applicable to other areas currently relying on professional drivers, such as taxis and buses. The significant cost savings would be attractive to operators, while the availability of drivers as a fall back in case of system failures could allay concerns about giving full responsibility to a robot.

If we knew that a highly skilled human driver was always ready at a moment’s notice to take control of the vehicle, wouldn’t we be more willing to share the road with it?