A new EU project SARTRE is being launched to develop and test technology for vehicles that can drive themselves in long road trains on motorways. This technology has the potential to improve traffic flow and journey times, offer greater comfort to drivers, reduce accidents, and improve fuel consumption and hence lower CO2 emissions.
The automotive industry has long been focused on the development of active safety systems that operate preventively, such as traction control and braking assistance programs. But automakers have also gone much further in proposing technology that allows vehicles to be operated without any input whatsoever from the person behind the wheel. Known as autonomous driving, this technology means that the vehicles is able to take control over acceleration, braking and steering, and can be used as part of a road train of similarly controlled vehicles.
The first test cars equipped with this technology will roll on test tracks as early as 2011. The vehicles will be equipped with a navigation system and a transmitter/receiver unit that communicates with a lead vehicle. Since the system is built into the cars, there is no need to extend the infrastructure along the existing road network.
The idea is that each road train or platoon will have a lead vehicle that drives exactly as normal, with full control of all the various functions. This lead vehicle is driven by an experienced driver who is thoroughly familiar with the route. For instance, the lead may be taken by a taxi, a bus or a truck. Each such road train will consist of six to eight vehicles.
A driver approaching his destination takes over control of his own vehicle, leaves the convoy by exiting off to the side and then continues on his own to his destination. The other vehicles in the road train close the gap and continue on their way until the convoy splits up.