Back in the 1980s I was working at Eaton in corporate research. A popular topic in industrial automation at that time was Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). They are still around; of course, they have their own website (http://www.automaticguidedvehicles.com/). There were systems that used wires in the floor to provide paths to follow, something like Elon Musk’s hyperloop tunnels with fixed paths. Other times the path was programmed into the unit, much like we have some cruise control systems for trucks that have memorized the route to save fuel without the need for wireless communications.

The systems had various means to detect a human walking in front of the vehicle including ultrasound, cameras, and cow catchers. Some of the research at that time was to use cameras with fixed emblems posted throughout the factory to guide the robotic vehicle, much as we now have systems that can identify stop signs and speed limit signs. These vehicles only moved at a few feet per second, not the 88 feet per second that a big rig going down the highway at 60 miles per hour is traversing.

I’ve often said over the last few years, that autonomous vehicles in controlled spaces, and on private land, are a good place to use the technology in a crawl before you walk before you run mode. Yard hostelers are going electric, with Kalmar announcing a five year supply agreement with TransPower. Kamag also announced an electric, autonomous vehicle that can be loaded and unloaded automatically. This looks, to me, just like an overgrown, super-sized AGV, complete with the cow catcher style system for detecting something to avoid going bump in the night or the daytime.

As I look at this, I think in terms of the growing use of containers and chassis for hauling them. What if a container could be dropped down onto a chassis that is an automated guided vehicle of this sort? It could then move around the rail yard on its own. Loading and unloading would still be done by other equipment, which might also be automated. The rail company could also have an automated rail car system that allowed a single container to be loaded onto it (or double stacked) and it would not have to wait for hundreds more devices to be connected and a diesel/electric hybrid engine to propel it around. Of course all these autonomous rail cars would have vehcle to vehicle communications and self negotiate their way around the rail system. Oops, I’m getting way ahead of myself and running like a small child that falls over forward when its body outpaces its feet.

Still, if we don’t need a driver in the future, then tractors are not in your future.