In the search for innovative forms of transportation, an EU-funded project has found a way for people to drive their cars without actually having to drive them.
© Fotolia, 2012
Known as "road trains," a truck driven by a specially trained driver leads a procession of cars or other trucks that automatically follow steering and braking instructions being transmitted wirelessly from the escort vehicle. With their hands and feet completely free, drivers can read, eat, talk on the phone, catch up on work, write letters or watch television, if they so wish.
If the lead vehicle has to turn, speed up, slow down or even brake suddenly, the action is sent instantaneously to the following vehicles, which copy the actions automatically and safely – without the need for the driver to do anything. The following cars constantly measure the lead vehicle's location, speed and direction, and immediately adjust to any changes – no matter how slight.
"Platooning" or "convoying," as the road trains are also known, directly addresses the three cornerstone issues of transportation: environment, safety and congestion. With the vehicles drafting a few metres behind each other, SARTRE – short for "Safe Road Trains for the Environment" – can cut fuel consumption by up to 20%. Because the sensor-based system reacts faster than people – who are the cause of 87% of traffic accidents – SARTRE provides safety benefits. And SARTRE can improve how roads are utilised, since vehicles can travel very close together or drive long distances at night when roads are used less.
For drivers, SARTRE can reduce their stress and increase their comfort. It combines the advantages of public transportation, with someone else doing the driving, and the freedom of a privately owned car that can leave the road train at any time.
The project also provides significant benefits for the EU. SARTRE has brought together leading-edge researchers from four countries, creating meaningful synergies that have already led to spin-off technologies in the rapidly growing field of intelligent transport. Such a wide-ranging project that involves long-distance travel would fit elegantly into Europe's transportation system.
Recent trials conducted at Volvo's test track near Gothenburg, Sweden, successfully created a road train comprised of a lead truck followed by three cars travelling up to 90 km/hour entirely autonomously – with a gap of no more than 6 metres. By end of 2012, the SARTRE team hopes to add a fourth vehicle to the train, which would complete its current round of tests.
With such a complicated technology, a number of challenges – technical and otherwise – have to be worked out. Still unresolved are questions about how the vehicles would respond if the lead truck has an accident, the ideal distance between vehicles, and whether dedicated routes would be established, like traditional public transportation. An EU-wide legal framework will have to be developed to allow road trains to operate throughout Europe.
The system's biggest advantages may lie in its adaptability and relatively low cost. "SARTRE's underlying technology can be integrated into vehicles within a few years in a cost-effective manner," said Eric Chan, chief engineer of Ricardo, a UK-based transportation technology company that is leading the project. "And there is no need to change the road infrastructure, which would allow SARTRE vehicles to use existing highways."