SNCF picture

France Mulls Cheaper Hack For Autonomous Transport

As billions go into building driverless everything, France is taking...

As billions go into building driverless everything -- from cars to buses and airplanes -- France is taking a cheaper shortcut to autonomous transport.

To get rid of the need for a driver, state-owned railway SNCF will upgrade its existing trains and use century-old tracks to keep costs down. The first prototypes will be ready within five years and cost 57 million euros ($70 million) to develop, the company said Wednesday.

Still, the race for self-driving vehicles appears to be moving much more quickly. Automaker General Motors Co. says it will get robotaxis on the road as early as next year as it battles with Google’s Waymo to get to the market first. GM’s autonomous car unit is valued more than $11 billion.

“We’re not starting from scratch; we’re building on existing infrastructure,” Pierre Izard, SNCF’s deputy head of rail technologies, said in an interview. “Rail is well positioned.”

Some cities, including Paris, already operate partially-autonomous subway trains, with no drivers but attendants present in case of emergency. Existing high-speed trains also feature some basic automated functions.

SNCF, which was founded almost a century ago and helped make France’s high-speed TGV trains famous, is trying to ensure trains remain competitive in the future. Its executives are attempting a balancing act between restructuring and defusing strikes, while investing in projects like ultrafast tube transport Virgin Hyperloop One.