Electric ducks instead of trucks

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Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: Ducktrain

With an electrically driven, automated “Ducktrain”, the Aachen-based company DroidDrive wants to make logistics in inner cities more efficient, cleaner and quieter: With its pallet-sized carts, the “Ducktrain” offers space for parcel shipments and other goods to be transported into the city.

Like a small flock of ducks, the container wagons roll through the city centre one behind the other: the “Ducktrain” is not on its way to the next pond, but brings parcels to the front doors – fully electric, quiet and efficient. Instead of a physical connection, the automated light vehicles use follow-me technology: each “duck” is equipped with sensors that recognise the guiding object – the vehicle at the front or a person accompanying the train – and virtually couple to it. The individual carriages, each of which has space for a pallet, therefore always dutifully follow the “guiding duck”. The Aachen-based DroidDrive GmbH is behind the “Ducktrain”: it wants to replace conventional delivery vehicles in cities with the system.

Automated driving is not yet fully developed

CEO Kai Kreisköther has been involved in electro mobility since 2011. Together with Prof. Achim Kampker and other colleagues, he established the corresponding chair at RWTH Aachen University, where he also worked intensively on the development of the all-electric StreetScooter van. “In the process, we learned a lot about the functionalities and technological challenges of such a vehicle,” explains Kreisköther. From 2014, he was then allowed to build up a team that would focus on the topic of automation. “We had drones flying, for example, but when it came to automated driving, it was clear that it would still take a very long time to realise this on the road – neither was the technology fully developed nor was the legal situation clarified. Both are still true today.

»We are currently working on the very last details. In parallel, we are trying to find an agreement with the road traffic authorities so that this vehicle can also be driven on public roads.«

Kai Kreisköther, CEO, DroidDrive GmbH

Agreement sought with road authorities

Together with two colleagues, Kreisköther decided to build his own product, accepting precisely this reality – “even though it’s really hard for me as an engineer, because we know that the technology works. But it’s just not mature enough to really go out there with it.” Follow-me technology was the compromise: an intermediate step on the road to automated driving. A prototype was already completed in 2018 – up to 30 km/h fast and “already very functional under very real conditions such as in rain and snow,” Kreisköther reports. “We are currently working on the very last details. In parallel, we are trying to find an agreement with the road traffic authorities so that this vehicle is also allowed to drive on public roads. We have been working with the TÜV and the Ministry of Transport, among others, for quite some time and now we know what we have to do to get the Ducktrain on the road.” It will be launched in Aachen, followed by metropolises such as Hamburg and Berlin as well as cities in Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and southern Germany. Furthermore, the “ducks” are soon to be used in other European countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

Also suitable for trade and craftsmen

The “ducks” can not only help deliver parcels to end consumers, but also supply retailers or assist craftsmen, for example. The concept envisages a Ducktrain with around five vehicles picking up the consignments from a hub outside the city gates and bringing them into the city centre. “This would save on micro-hubs in the city centres, where space is scarce. And unlike the cargo bike, which has to be recharged regularly, I can drive here in shuttle traffic in columns of 5 into the city centres, where messengers then take care of the stop-and-go traffic to the front doors. And because we know exactly which parcels are on the Ducks and where the tour ends with them, we can already place the next train plus delivery person there.” This division of the process should significantly increase the efficiency of the delivery. In a simulation, 20 to 40 per cent of the costs could be saved – compared to the classic van, but also to the cargo bike.

Save up to 60 million tonnes of CO2

According to the Ducktrain team, the fact that the Ducks “waddle” 100 per cent electrically could also save over 60 million tonnes of CO2 in European cities. Emission-free, quiet, narrowly built and with a payload of 300 kilograms and two cubic metres of storage volume per unit, the system recommends itself as a green solution for inner-city logistics. The Ducktrain manoeuvres past traffic jams and is not stopped by bollards, narrow alleys or pedestrian zones. If people cross or a cat scurries past, it recognises this and brakes automatically. The train can travel on the road as well as on footpaths and cycle paths; however, Kreisköther expects it to be used primarily on the road, adding: “The Ducks are only about one metre narrow and thus take up much less space than classic vans, for example.” For him, the Ducktrain is a building block for an overall solution in inner-city transport: Kreisköther believes that as a low-threshold entry-level product, it will develop into a very efficient means of operation in the coming years. Further development steps are already technically possible today, but they will have to wait until they can be implemented in regulatory terms. A software update should then enable the Ducks to complete parts of their journey fully automatically.
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