Miniature Car Systems for Model Railway Layouts

A few years ago, a technology was developed that was initially installed at permanent model railway exhibitions: The so-called “Car System” or “Digital Car System” - a technology for autonomously driving miniature cars and verhicles on model railroad layouts in HO scale and even in N scale. Pilentum wrote this special report, including basic information, to help you to understand how this system works.

At the end of the 1990's, the German company Faller developed one of the first systems. It was called “Faller Car System 1.0”. In this system, a wire is embedded in the middle of the model streets. This wire serves to guide small magnets that are glued to the front axles of model cars, buses or trucks. Therefore, the metal wire is the most important element in this system. At that time, normal standard scale model cars were used - for example, car models made by Wiking or Herpa. They were equipped with five elements: With a battery with 2.4 volts, with an electric motor, with a gearbox for the rear wheel axle, with a front wheel axle with steering, and with a magnet on the front axle.

The challenge was to convert a non-moving car model by hand into a moving car. The first vehicles were trucks or buses, because here was enough space available to install the motor, gearbox and battery. When the electronics were switched on, the car immediately ran at a constant speed. The steering was made possible by the magnet on the front axle. The vehicle always drove on the (invisible) line of the metal wire.

The system was expanded by the company Faller: Traffic lights, street crossings and bus stops were added. The commands to drive off and stop the cars were given via reed switches. Under the road surface - for example in front of a traffic light - a ferromagnetic metal reed switch was installed. If a magnetic switch is active, it triggers a command into the moving car. This command has only two options: “Power ON” or “POWER OFF”, i.e. the car drives or the car stops.

To simulate realistic traffic, the normal switch (ON/OFF) has been replaced by a decoder. Inside the decoder the typical behavior of cars is simulated or programmed: Smooth acceleration and smooth braking. Therefore, another component must be installed in each miniature car, namely the decoder. However, the decoder is not only responsible for driving, but also controls the lights: Headlights, fog lights, brake lights and travel direction indicators. Furthermore - if a speaker is additionally installed - noises (police siren, etc.) can be turned on and off.

Over time, the system became more complex: There are points or switches to determine the direction of travel for the cars. Think of a street crossing: Should the car turn left? Should the car turn right? Should the car go straight? And it got even more complex: If two cars drive on a street, their distance could be regulated via block circuits (reed switch ON or reed switch OFF). Finally, the system became so complex that a program had to be developed to ensure the control of the cars. Therefore, different companies conquered the market with different control systems. Some work with a miniature satellite system, others work with infrared signals or with wireless signals via WiFi.

Miniature Car Systems for Model Railway Layouts

■ The big difference between the systems

Originally, the “Car System” was an independent system. In the simplest case, the cars always drive on the magnet wire. But what do you do, if you want to simulate complex traffic? Some model railroaders want to address and control the cars individually - similar to the DCC system for model trains. Some model railroaders prefer to work without a computer. In this case, the control is made via magnetic switches or via infrared sensors.

There are two extremes: On the one hand, all traffic can be previously programmed with the computer. Many people use, for example, the software “TrainController” or “Win-Digipet” or “iTrain”. It must be drawn a track plan or street plan. Every miniature car must have an digital address; for each car, an action program - a kind of timetable - must be written in the DCC software. Pilentum calls this extreme: The total control! On the other hand, the flow of traffic can be regulated by standardized control boxes. These control boxes are available for traffic lights, for railroad crossings or for bus stops, etc. These boxes are installed under the model railway landscape and they are connected via reed contacts. Pilentum calls this extreme: The situational control!

It's hard for me, as a German, to find the right words: Either you have to control any car separately and individually via DCC software - or you let control the actions of the cars globally in certain places on your model railroad layout. I hope you understand what I mean? An example: If a yellow express model train should always have priority, this must be programmed once in the DCC software via the track plan. So all railway lines must be programmed for the yellow model train. That's not impossible, but a very time-consuming job. The alternative: The situation decides: The yellow model train should always pass through a station. In this case, only the railway lines in the station must be controlled. Instead of using the DCC system, a simple control box is in use that monitors only the station.

Another example: The yellow miniature car should drive over all roads along your model landscape. All traffic lights are supposed to be green for the yellow miniature car. And, all other cars must stop when the yellow car comes. This complex control for the yellow miniature car can only be realized with a DCC software. It is easily possible, but takes a lot of time. The alternative: Decoders or control boxes at the traffic lights regulate the traffic. All miniature cars are controlled according to a standard procedure.

Autonomous Driving and Self-Driving Cars - also known as a Robot Car or Autonomous Vehicles - on Model Railway Layouts and Model Railroad Displays

■ The similarity of all systems

Meanwhile, all systems are very well developed. All systems still need the magnet wire in the street. So if you want to install a car system on your layout additionally, you have to re-built or re-construct your streets and roads. Unfortunately, the technology is very expensive. All elements (motor, gearboxes, decoder, LED, lights, axles, etc. are available as components, so you can convert any non-moving car into an automatic car. And, you need a lot of craftsmanship. There are also ready-to-run miniature cars, for example fire trucks with more than 10 flashing lights or buses with interior lighting. Everything is possible! The miniature car's technique is absolutely fascinating.

Miniature Car System and Self-Driving Vehicles on Model Railroad Layout

■ The Faller Car System

The German company Faller has meanwhile developed the third version. It's called “Car System Digital 3.0” which is based on satellites, which can locate the vehicles on the layout in real time via ultrasonic. Reed contacts are no longer necessary. Functions such as dimming lights, slow starting or playing sounds are controlled via a permanent radio link. Also the automatic distance control of the miniature cars is controlled via ultrasonic and radio links. The model railway layout is covered by a cellular network - like a mobile network of radio beams. Therefore, you have to install these miniature satellites over the whole layout. One drawback: Every vehicle has an ugly black radio receiver on the roof.

Faller Website:

Scale Model Car on Model Train Layouts

■ The DC Car System

The DC CAR System was developed by the computer engineer Claus Ilchmann in Germany. After visiting Miniatur Wunderland, Claus was fascinated by the operation of the moving cars and trucks on the model railway layout. By the way, Miniatur Wunderland's technology is an individual development that was originally based on the Faller Car System. However, Claus decided to design a new car system that had realistic vehicle operation and an automatic distance control for each miniature car without using satellites or radio beams.

The DC Car System uses infrared signals: The front of every vehicle has a small IR receiver and the rear has a IR transmitter. Any miniature car sends out a signal to the vehicle that's following. When the rear vehicle gets to close to the lead vehicle, it's brake lights come on for a few seconds, and the distance control programming takes effect. The rear vehicle starts to slow down, and when the lead vehicle stops, also the vehicle behind stops as well. The decoder inside the miniature cars works similar to DCC locomotives and include the ability to change the values of many functions.

The advantage is that additional signals for controlling the miniature car can be received via these IR receivers. You can control the miniature cars via a DCC software. But you can also control the miniature cars via control boxes. It is an individual do-it-yourself system and very popular with German model railroaders. One drawback: At every point, where a procedure is planned for the car, an IR transmitter - a small IR LED - must be installed, for example in front of a traffic light or in front of a railroad crossing.

DC Car Website:

Faller Car System - DC Car System - MCC Model Car Parts System - Krois Car System

■ The MCC Model Car Parts System

The MCC System, also known as “Dinamo/MCC”, was developed by the Van Perlo Elektronica en Besturingstechniek company in the Netherlands. The system is based on the fact that no radio connection and no IR connection is needed. In addition to the magnetic wire for steering the miniature cars, the MCC System uses two copper wires that are installed on both sides of the standard magnetic wire. A special control unit, the “UCCI”, transmits all control signals over the two copper wires. All types of vehicles (trucks, cars, buses, etc.) can drive on the model roads or model streets. Additionally, the UCCI can locate the exact position of the vehicles on the layout. One drawback: You definitely need a DCC-like software to control the miniature cars via UCCI, for example “iTrain” or “iCar” or “Koploper”. I guess, it's a very good car system, but so far it's rarely used in Germany. In the Netherlands, there are many model railroaders who use it.

MCC Website:

Autonomous Driving Vehicles and Self-Driving Miniature Cars

■ The Krois Car System

The Krois Car System is one of the latest developments that was introduced only a year or two ago. It's made in Austria. This system also requires the wire below the model street. The difference with all other systems is the fact, that any communication between the decoders inside the miniature cars and the control unit is realized via a radio network - WiFi on 2.4 GHz. The small decoder in the miniature cars is equipped with a radio unit for transmitting and receicing data signals. The car's position, it's battery status, light actions, commands and much more is controlled by the radio control center box which has to be connected to an computer. One drawback: You definitely need a DCC-like software to control the miniature cars via the radio control center, for example “TrainController”, etc. Actually, Pilentum Television does not know on which large model railway exhibition the Krois Car System is in use.

Krois Website:

Moving Cars and Trucks and IR Controlled Vehicles on Model Railway Layouts

■ Summary

Maybe there are other car systems on the market. But these four systems currently represent the state of the art in Europe, especially in Germany. All systems are characterized by high technology. Each system has an advantage but also a disadvantage. On the one hand, there is the Faller Car System; Faller has focused on offering a complete system. There are prefabricated roads or miniature streets, there are switches or points, there are decoders - and above all, there are RTR vehicles. On the other hand, there are the DC Car, MCC and the Krois System. These systems can be configured very individually. It is - as I wrote before - something like a do-it-yourself system. It is not possible to characterize one car system as better and the other car system as worse. Each model railroader has to decide for himself which of these car systems is best suited for his model railway layout.

■ Pilentum Television

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