Freight is Fuel for The Economy - The Road To Autonomy

Freight is Fuel for The Economy

Greg Hrebek, President, Railspire joined Grayson Brulte on The Road to Autonomy podcast to discuss autonomous trains and their impact on the economy.

The conversation begins with Grayson and Greg discussing the first partially automated train which debuted on London’s Victoria Line in 1967 and how train automation has evolved over the last 55 years.

Looking to the future of autonomous trains, Greg shares the following insight:

Where autonomy comes in is when you start treating autonomy as a tool, rather than the goal. If you have autonomy, you can then start doing more complex interactive interactions, we call that orchestration.

– Greg Hrebek

Orchestration will lead to the growth of intermodal as shippers look to develop infrastructure as-a-service model when large logistics companies begin to leverage autonomous trucks and autonomous rail due to efficiencies.

Today there are a lot of inefficiencies in the rail industry that can be solved with autonomy. Today, when a train comes into a yard with a crew, there is the chance that the crew could have to stay on the locomotive for 4 to five hours due to yard traffic. With autonomy, the wait is eliminated as the crew can disembark, while the locomotive waits and eventually drives itself into yard.

It increases the efficiency of the network in the sense that you are not waiting on that crew to timeout.

– Greg Hrebek

In the rail industry there is a current lack of workers as railroads are struggling to hire. Jim Foote, CEO of CSX stated the following publicly at a 2022 AllianceBernstein Holdings conference: “CSX is turning away freight from customers, ceding cargo business to truckers as the railroad struggles to hire workers.”

Technology is now a conversation of growth, not about labor savings.

– Greg Hrebek

As autonomy is introduced into the rail industry, it will help railroads grow and expand, which will have a positive impact on the economy. The technology will create new jobs various facets around the industry including maintenance as autonomous trains drive the track the same exact way each and every single journey.

When you remove variants and variability out of something, things tend to break the same way over and over again.

– Greg Hrebek

Taking a global approach, Greg shares his thoughts on autonomous train technology being exported to the world and where the technology will first be implemented. Grayson then asks Greg what role he wants Railspire to play as autonomous train technology scales.

We want to be the folks that one enable yard operation, yard throughput. We really want to fundamentally get folks thinking around that orchestration layer. What is the next step beyond autonomy? Autonomy now we know how to do it. I call it an exercise in engineering, there is still a lot to figure out, there is a lot of logistics, but we see that we have proven it out.

What is next? Once we have autonomous trains, what are the things we need to focus on? What are the things we have not thought about? Our goal is to help highlight those things.

– Greg Hrebek

Wrapping up the conversation, Greg shares is thoughts on how the freight rail market will change when autonomous locomotives scale.

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Recorded on Tuesday, June 7, 2022