Back in January of last year, I posted a note here about some work being done by Volvo to develop the technology for “road trains”. Using a variety of technologies, including cameras, radar, and laser tracking systems, along with wireless networking, the idea is that a group of specially equipped vehicles can travel together as an ensemble. One “lead” vehicle, with a skilled driver, will lead the way, and the other will follow along using automated controls. The motivation 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 work is part of a European Union project, SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment).
A recent article at the Register (a UK-based technology news site) reports that the first tests of the system have now taken place on public roads: 200 km [~ 125 miles] of Spanish motorways.
Three cars have successfully driven themselves by automatically following a lorry [truck] for 125 miles on a public motorway in the presence of other, normal road users.
The average speed during the trip was slightly more than 50 mph. The three cars stayed in line behind the lead truck, with an average separation of 6 m [~19.6 feet]. Considering that the speed (50 mph) is 70+ feet per second, this spacing would be dangerously close for human drivers; if these results hold up, there would seem to be some validity in the claim of closer proximity travel via this “platooning”.
As with Google’s “self-driving” cars, I think this technology has the potential to make auto travel safer and more efficient. Both these technologies will also require some changes to traffic laws and people’s attitudes.
Update Tuesday, 29 May, 23:05 EDT
The “Autopia” blog at Wired also has a report on this test, which gives a bit more detail.