IMAGINE this: You’re on your way to work and you join a busy motorway. You edge up to within touching distance of the car in front – then you pick up your newspaper and settle back for a nice read and a cup of tea.
It may be a vision of hell, a Utopian scene from a futuristic sci-fi movie or an ordinary day on an Italian autostrada, but it’s a scenario that is closer than you might think and it is simply loaded with benefits.
The idea of the ‘road train’, as it is being called, has been unveiled in a new EU project called SARTRE, and it could become reality within 10 years.
The motor industry has long focused on developing preventive technology, such as traction control and ABS, and it has now come up with a system that allows vehicles to be driven with no driver input.
Known as autonomous driving, it means the vehicle can take control over acceleration, braking and steering, and become part of a road train of similarly controlled vehicles.
Each vehicle will be equipped with a navigation system and a transmitter-receiver unit that communicates with a lead vehicle, which would be in the hands of an experienced driver thoroughly familiar with the route.
A driver approaching his destination takes over control of his own car, leaves the convoy by exiting to the side and then continues on his own. The other vehicles in the road train close the gap and continue on their way until the convoy splits up.
Because the system is built into the cars, there would be no need to extend the infrastructure along the existing road network. The first test cars equipped with this technology will roll on test tracks as early as 2011.
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 carbon dioxide emissions.
Another advantage of road trains is that all the other drivers in the convoy would have time to get on with other business while on the road, making valuable use of commuting time.
The road trains would mean improved fuel consumption because the cars would be so close to each other, exploiting the resultant lower air drag, producing an expected energy saving of around 20 per cent. Road capacity could also be utilised far more efficiently.
Erik Coelingh, a safety expert at Volvo, says: “This type of autonomous driving doesn’t require any hocus-pocus technology and no investment in infrastructure. Instead, the emphasis is on development and adapting technology that is already in existence.”
Researchers see road trains primarily as a major benefit to commuters who cover long distances by motorway every day, but they will also be of potential benefit to trucks, buses, coaches vans and other commercial vehicle types.