Anyone who has spent Christmas morning sending a choo choo around the tree knows the primary hazards to trains are toys wandering onto the track, and taking turns at high speed—both of which are also more or less the primary hazards to trains in real life. So, you might ask, how hard can it be to make trains fully autonomous?
Or maybe you’re wondering why we should even care about trains and how they operate—what is this, the 1800s?—so let’s back up a bit. If you think America is solely dependent on trucks to move freight, you might be suffering from tunnel vision: Trains account for a third of the ton-miles—that is, a ton of weight carried a mile—that freight travels in the U.S. every year. That’s almost as much as is carried by trucks. The U.S. has the most extensive rail network of any country on earth by miles of track—yes, even bigger than China’s—and it’s currently facing some of the same snarls and congestion as seemingly every other part of the country’s supply chains, on account of unprecedented activity at ports and record demand at some rail hubs.