IT may sound like something from a futuristic sci-fi story but the arrival of cars that can drive themselves is now reality.
In their first public test, a convoy of self-driven vehicles successfully completed a 125-mile journey along a Spanish motorway.
A professional driver took the lead in a truck, and was followed by four self-driven vehicles – another lorry and three cars, all wirelessly linked to precisely mimic the lead vehicle.
The so-called road train project is a partly EC-funded joint venture led by British engineering and technology developer Ricardo UK and Volvo.
The aim is to herald a new age of relaxed, super-safe driving and there is total confidence that the road train technology will be commonly available before too long.
Volvo project manager Linda Wahlstroem says: “Drivers can now work on their laptops, read a book or sit back and enjoy a relaxed lunch while driving.
“Driving among other road-users is a great milestone in our project. It was truly thrilling. The test turned out well. We’re really delighted.”
The cars are fitted with special features including cameras, radar and laser sensors, allowing them to monitor the lead vehicle and other vehicles in their immediate vicinity. Using wireless communication, the vehicles in the platoon copy the lead vehicle’s actions. The vehicles drove at 52mph with a gap of just 19 feet between them.
Ms Wahlstroem said: “People think that autonomous driving is science fiction, but the technology is already here. We’ve focused hard on changing as little as possible in existing systems. Everything should function without any infrastructure changes to the roads or expensive additional components in the cars.
“Apart from the software developed as part of the project, it is really only the wireless network installed between the cars that sets them apart from other cars available in showrooms today.”
She was filmed driving one of the cars in the convoy as the system instructed her to lift her feet from the pedals and then remove her hands from the wheel. As the car sped along the highway near Barcelona, she leafed through a magazine.
“It is quite funny to see the passing vehicles. They are quite surprised seeing me not driving the car but reading a magazine,” she said.
All the vehicles in the project have covered about 10,000km on test circuits. The eventual aim of the project is to have lots of cars ‘slaved’ to a lead vehicle and travelling at high speed along specific routes on motorways.
The close distance between the cars also creates a slipstream that allows the vehicles to use less fuel, it says, with savings of up to 20 per cent possible.
“Naturally,” Ms Wahlstroem adds, “the project also aims to improve traffic safety, reduce environmental impact and, thanks to smooth speed control, cut the risk of traffic tailbacks.”