On May 19, Erik Solheim, a former Norwegian diplomat and government minister who now works for China’s Green Belt and Road Institute, tweeted a video purportedly showing an autonomous electric “train” being tested in Harbin, China. The video was produced by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, and was originally posted that same day by another Twitter user. Solheim’s tweet tweet read:
“This is incredible! China is testing it’s [sic] new autonomous electric train that does not need traditional tracks. It runs on a virtual track. Can go everywhere.”
The video purports to show a “newly-developed smart train” being tested in frigid weather and claims that it runs on a “virtual track.”
“The trackless train was first launched in May 2018,” a caption to the video reads.
These claims about the autonomous “trackless train” are misleading because there is a much more accurate term for this vehicle - a bus.
More specifically, it is what’s known as a bi-articulated bus, allowing for three additional passenger compartments, as opposed to two for a regular articulated bus. The design is not particularly new. Such vehicles were in use in France as far back as the late 1980s. Nor is it rare: at least 10 other countries use bi-articulated buses, including Germany, Belgium, Brazil and Canada.
The use of bi-articulated buses is limited due to certain features of the vehicles, such as their large turning radius. That is worth keeping in mind when watching the “trackless train” video, because the vehicle is shown driving on empty roads and an open highway.
Other social media users who saw Solheim’s tweet responded with sarcasm -- many of them with memes -- photos of other types of vehicles, including ships and airplanes, labeled as “trains.”
Still, the bi-articulated bus is at least a functional vehicle, even if its use is limited. Earlier there was much fanfare about an elevated bus that ran on tracks in several major Chinese cities and was supposedly capable of traveling over several lanes of traffic. However, the project was canceled in 2017 due to viability issues, including the fact that the buses’ clearance was too low to actually pass over all road traffic. Cargo trucks, for example, could not pass under the bus. In addition, the buses were too tall to pass under bridges and overpasses.
When the elevated bus made its first test runs in the city of Quinhuangdao in 2016, it obstructed traffic everywhere it went, causing traffic jams. Ultimately, people associated with the project were arrested on suspicion of fraud.