Technology that enables vehicles to automatically communicate with each other so that they can form “road trains” has been demonstrated for the first time.

The €6.4 million EU-funded SARTRE project (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) aims to develop technology that will enable drivers on motorways and highways to join a “platoon” of vehicles and give over control to the lead vehicle. Researchers from SARTRE say that as well as allowing the driver to do other tasks, road trains will save on energy by up to 20% by reducing air drag, increase safety (driver error is responsible for 87% of accidents) and cut traffic.

Engineers in Cambridge, UK demonstrated the technology for the first time earlier this month by driving a truck followed by three cars driven autonomously at speeds of up to 90 km/h, with no more than 6m gap between the vehicles.

The cars used a combination of sensors, such as radar, camera and laser, to detect distance and then sent and received data via wireless communications technology based on the forthcoming 802.11p standard. Bespoke software is used to administer and organise the platoon of vehicles.

SARTRE, which concludes later this year, aims to create a platoon of five vehicles, although the researchers have stated that up to 15 should be possible. The technology could be on the roads before the end of the decade.

Although it’s great that the sizeable technical challenges are being overcome, there is still a long way to go with the non-technical issues, something the participants in the project themselves accept. For example there are legal issues, product liability issues and driver acceptability issues. Car manufacturers have found drivers reluctant to give over controls of cars to automated safety systems, let alone other drivers on the road!



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