Although aircraft have had auto-pilots and instrument landing systems for some time, and railways have had signaling and switching systems even longer, the automobile has been, until quite recently, an individually operated affair. Last October I wrote about a Google test of a “self-driving” car. Now the BBC News site has a report of the tests of another new auto technology, whose objective is to allow the use of car convoys, or “road trains”.
Technology that links vehicles into “road trains” that can travel as a semi-autonomous convoy has undergone its first real world tests.
The idea is that the leading vehicle in the train will be driven by a selected driver, and the subsequent cars will use automated controls to follow along in an orderly way The tests, carried out by Volvo, are part of a European Commission research project known as SARTRE [Safe Road Trains for the Environment]. The belief is that a road train system could reduce fuel consumption, increase safety, and possibly even relieve congestion, by allowing cars to travel safely in closer proximity. The appeal to drivers would presumably be the freedom to look at the paper, conduct telephone conversations, and so on, as their cars kept their position automatically.
The system does not really require any radically new technology, and the project team thinks that the technology might be ready to be deployed within a decade. As with the Google project, gaining public acceptance, and making necessary changes to traffic laws, might take at least as long. Still, travel by car is dangerous, relatively speaking, and accounts for a large chunk of fuel use. Finding ways to use technology to reduce these problems has a big potential payoff.
The “Autopia” blog at Wired also has an article on the tests.