Is This The Future Of Motorway Driving?

Car driving automatically in a platoon - part of the SARTRE project
This car is travelling under the control of the lorry, which is leading the platoon. No input is necessary from the driver - all controls (including steering) are automated.

I wrote in April last year about the potential within the foreseeable future of cars being operated in autopilot mode when on motorways – little did I know that a project to make this possible was already underway and due to conclude in September 2012.

The EU-funded SARTRE Project (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) aims to demonstrate the feasibility of ‘platooning’ – cars driving under automatic guidance behind a vehicle with a professional driver, such as a lorry.

At this point I can see British readers shaking their heads and saying that they would never put up with being permanently stuck behind a lorry.

Really? Let’s consider the facts:

  • When UK motorways are busy, you are lucky to maintain a speed of more than 56mph (lorry speed limiter) anyway.
  • The even flow of traffic created by platooning would actually reduce congestion and improve fuel consumption by up to 20% for drivers in the platoon
  • While travelling in a platoon, you could read, eat, use the telephone, work on your laptop – almost anything except sleep.
A 3 car SARTRE platoon in action on Volvo's test track
A 3 car platoon in action for the first time, on Volvo's test track - Volvo is one of the companies involved in SARTRE

Here’s how platooning would work:

  • Cars follow close behind a lead vehicle, with a gap of less than 6m between each vehicle
  • The technology required for automated control is built into each car – no modifications are required to the road network
  • The lead vehicle takes over control of the following cars by wireless link
  • When a car approaches its destination, it pulls out of the platoon and the gap is automatically closed up
  • Cars wanting to join a platoon are guided to the nearest one by their sat nav systems
  • Platoons can be 6-8 cars long

The SARTRE project has just reached an important stage, completing the first test demonstrations of a multiple vehicle platoon.

The test fleet included a lead truck followed by three cars driven entirely autonomously at speeds of up to 90 km/h – with no more than 6 metres gap between the vehicles.

“The aim is for the entire road train to be completed in autumn 2012. By then we will have four vehicles after one lead vehicle driving at 90 km/h,” says Erik Coelingh, technical project manager at the Volvo Car Corporation.

You can see the road train in action on Volvo’s test track in this video:

There are obviously legal and infrastructure issues related to platooning – not least to how the platoons interact with non-platoon vehicles being driven independently. In addition, a standard technology for controlling platooning would have to be agreed to ensure that all vehicles could be controlled in the same way.

These issues are being addressed by the SARTRE project and it seems very possible that platooning – or something similar – could be a realistic prospect on our roads within the next couple of decades.

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