Are we ready for the road train?
ON A WINDING stretch of motorway just outside Barcelona, a lorry chugs along the inside lane at a cruise-controlled 85km/h. Behind it, in tailgating close attendance, are three cars, matching its speed perfectly. Nothing unusual to see here: please keep moving, folks.
But there is something unusual. For a start, all three cars are Volvos. Odd coincidence? No: look closer. None of the drivers of the three cars is actually holding on the steering wheel, and, if you could peer down into the footwells, you would see that none is pressing the accelerator. This is road-train technology getting its public-road debut. This is, apparently, the future.
Sartre (safe road trains for the environment) is the slightly torturous acronym for a high-tech project involving Ricardo UK, Applus+ Idiada, Tecnalia Research Innovation, Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge Aachen (IKA), SP Technical Research Institute, Volvo Technology and Volvo Car Corporation.
It’s a surprisingly simple system that is intended to dramatically improve driver comfort, safety and the environmental performance of our motorways.
Essentially, a road train is radio-controlled cars on a grand, automated scale. The idea is that a lead vehicle, a lorry packed with high-tech telematics systems, rolls along the motorway at a steady 85km/h.
A car fitted with the appropriate electronic steering, braking and acceleration controls can hook up electronically to the back of the lead vehicle and then play follow-my-leader as far along the motorway as its driver desires.
Press a button, sit back and your car will follow the lorry perfectly as it steers, speeds up and slows down. Then disengage the system as you come up to your exit and take control again. In the meantime, you could sit back, relax, listen to the radio, make a phone call, read the paper, even have a snooze. Let the (highly trained, one hopes) driver of the lead lorry take the strain.
There is an obvious potential safety benefit in terms of keeping driver fatigue at bay on a long journey, as well as simply turning over control to a computer that can make decisions faster and better than you can for the length of the journey.
The environment benefits too, as cars running at a constant 85km/h are emitting very low levels of C02 and other pollutants, as well as a consequent improvement in fuel economy, while congestion on motorways at busy times could be virtually done away with if mass acceptance of road trains were ever to dawn.
“This is a very significant milestone in the development of safe road-train technology,” says Sartre project director Tom Robinson of Ricardo. “For the very first time we have been able to demonstrate a convoy of autonomously driven vehicles following a lead vehicle with its professional driver, in a mixed traffic environment on a European motorway. The success of this test is a reflection of the hard work, dedication and innovative skills of the Sartre project team and its contributing companies. While there remain many challenges to full-scale implementation, the Sartre project has demonstrated a very practical approach to the implementation of safe road-train technology that is capable of delivering an improved driving experience, better road-space utilisation and reduced carbon- dioxide emissions.”