"Road Train" Technology Could Let You Doze in the Driver's Seat

By Patrick Morgan | January 18, 2011 5:36 pm

The road ahead looks smooth for automatic driving systems. For the first time, Volvo, in partnership with a European Commission research project called Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE), has successfully road-tested a linking system that allows drivers to relax and tune out.

In such systems, cars form “road trains” behind a professional driver, creating a semi-autonomous convoy–essentially, a truck and car conga line that could improve highway congestion and inefficient gasoline use.

SARTRE platoons are guided by a lead vehicle, which is … followed by a succession of other, computer-controlled cars that are electronically tethered in the convoy. Each vehicle in the platoon measures the distance, speed and direction of the vehicle directly in front, adjusting its movements to stay in formation…. Unsurprisingly, there’s a metric horsetonne of technology that goes into making this possible. Each platoon car uses cameras to detect the position of the vehicle in front, all have drive-by-wire technology that allows the steering, accelerator and brakes to be controlled by a computer, and all communicate using a car-to-car wireless network. [CNET UK]

Hit the jump for more info, and a video demonstration.

The road test included a car successfully linking and then unlinking to a truck–and while that may sound simple, it’s anything but. In the early 1990s, a smaller platooning project called PATH was tested in San Diego, but it required the installation of induction loops into roads. What makes the SARTRE project different is that it doesn’t need special roads–the technology lies solely in the linked-up cars.

“This is a major milestone for this important European research programme,” says Tom Robinson, SARTRE project coordinator, of Ricardo UK Ltd. “Platooning offers the prospect of improved road safety, better road space utilization, improved driver comfort on long journeys and reduced fuel consumption and hence CO2 emissions. With the combined skills of its participating companies,  SARTRE is making tangible progress towards the realization of safe and effective road train technology”. [SARTRE Press Release]

Gasoline is unnecessarily wasted–and carbon dioxide is produced–whenever drivers accelerate aggressively. In a road train where the lead vehicle sets the pace for the following cars, fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions are expected to be reduced by upwards of 20 percent. In addition, the drivers behind the lead vehicle can relax on several levels: It’s not only that they don’t have to pay as much attention to the road, but they also don’t have to fuss over traffic congestion, since closely packed cars–basically, technological tailgating–allows cars to pack together better, leaving more room on the road.

What about drunk driving, though? If the lead driver has had a few too many, any accident would be multiplied by however many cars are linked up. So much depends on that lead driver. The researchers actually foresaw this snag, and came up with a clever solution.

Volvo’s Alcoguard breathalyser system ensures the driver is sober before permitting them to start the lead vehicle, while cabin-mounted video cameras track the orientation of the driver’s face to ensure they’re looking dead ahead. Clever software monitors the position of their eyes too, to ensure they haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel. [CNET UK]

The first trials of the system were conducted on Volvo’s test track in Sweden, but within the next year scientists hope to test the system on Spain’s public roads. And even though it may take a while to convince drivers that automatic driving systems are safe, SARTRE’s researchers are confident that the public will come aboard, and hope that within the coming decade car trains will be introduced to Europe’s roads.

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Image: CNET UK

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Viv

    What about in the US? And isn’t this kind of what cruise control does, except you’re not depending on someone else to be the lead driver?

  • Andy

    It sounds to me like this would only work if every car on the road was using the same system. What about those crazy guys that love weaving in and out of highway traffic? Would that not have an effect on the efficacy of the ‘conga-line’?

  • S

    Re: Viv. Actually, this is nothing like Cruise Control. Cruise Control is a mechanism in the car which allows it to maintain a consistent speed. Since you only control your own car, you would still have to pay attention to the position of your car, relative to the lane, and to other motorists on the road etc.

    This new system would effectively control every aspect of your driving, from ensuring the distance between your car and the cars around you is a safe one, ensuring cars are sped up, and slowed down accordingly, that you’re driving at the safe speed, that your car is safely in the middle of the road, etc. You can effectively just sit there, and do nothing during the car ride.

    Re: Andy. It will be necessary to modify this system a little bit, perhaps they can leave a smaller distance in between cars, which makes lane-weaving impossible? Or perhaps, they can employ this system in specific lanes, (like the HOV systems).

  • Jay Fox

    The whole point is to stack the cars together like beads on a necklace. With all of the cars controlled by the leader, reaction time is no longer an issue. The closely spaced cars would foil “weavers,” and benefit significant fuel savings to boot. Mythbusters showed that you could increase mpg dramatically by getting right on the rear bumper of a semi. NASCAR drivers show the same effect when they run at Daytona and Talladega. The single car weaving around soon gets left in the dust.

    The biggest problem I can forsee with such a system is the fact that it must assume similar performance characteristics for all vehicles in the train. Put a car with bad brakes near the rear, and problems could add up quickly in emergencies. Of course, if all vehicles had on-board computers talking to each other, perhaps speed and spacing would be automatically adjusted accordingly. Each car would have to be capable of monitoring it’s own performance characteristics and reporting same to “the hive.”

  • badnicolez

    How does this wagon train enter and exit the freeway? How does this work with other individual vehicles? I see traffic jams forming when these conga lines enter and exit the freeway. How do individual vehicles exit the conga line at their destination/exit? This seems to assume that all vehicles are going to the exact same destination.

    This seems like bad implementation of a good idea. Why not have chips embedded in the roadways that the vehicles “read” to get where they’re going without human interaction? The vehicle controls when to get on and off the freeway and communicates with vehicles already on the freeway to make sure there is room, speed is coordinated, etc.

  • geack


    Think it through a little farther – it’d be pretty pointless to have a system that required everyone to go the same places at the same time. It’d be more like: You drive onto the freeway and cruise along on your own until you hook up with one of the constantly-circulating “trains”. Then you pull into the train lane, hit a button, and your car links up with the train. You run with it as far as you need to, then when your exit’s coming up you hit your off button and exit on your own, and the cars in the train adjust to fill your spot. Seems good, although Jay Fox’s point about condition and performace looks like a significant obstacle – presumably, if the lead driver had to slam on his brakes, there would be more potential for carnage with the closely-spaced robocars, especially if one of them somehow failed mechanically. It’ll be interesting to follow the studies to see whether that potential flaw would outweigh the potential safety improvement of eliminating a bunch of possible human error in day-to-day driving.

  • jake

    Just another European waste of time and money.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2011/01/18/road-train-technology-could-let-you-doze-in-the-drivers-seat/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+DiscoverTechnology Don

    What is a “horsetonne”? About half way through 3rd paragraph. Searched Google and 2 Dictionaries with no success.

  • surge

    If the drivers have to be communicating with each other (as the #4 above suggests), it just changes the driver’s job, from handling the steering and brake to working a software – and that better be fail-proof and has a reliable backup. The fuel efficiency part sounds great and the idea worth a try. Wonder how long the caravan could be before requiring another lead truck. And the breathalyzer should be monitoring continuously, unless there is a monitor to ensure the driver isn’t drinking during the drive – maybe a co-driver with all the controls of a driver.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Don: We’re quoting CNET UK there. I’m guessing a “horsetonne” is a British expression meaning a whole lot.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Pippa

    A ‘horsetonne’ is indeed a large amount. I think it comes from the old, very large and heavy, cart horses.

  • Forrealz

    I think a “metric horsetonne” is roughly equivalent to a “buttload”.


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