Tests next year on'road train'initiative

Tests will start next year on cars that "drive themselves" in an initiative which could become a reality within 10 years.

Co-ordinated by a UK company, the EU project is called Sartre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) and involves a “carpooling” road train theory for use on motorways.

The road train would consist of six to eight vehicles whose occupants would be able to relax, read the paper or chat on mobile phones while travelling.

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This would be possible because their vehicles would be equipped with a navigation system and a transmitter/receiver unit which communicates with a lead vehicle.

This lead vehicle – possibly a taxi a bus or a truck – will drive “normally” and effectively “do the motoring” for the rest of the road train.

Drivers approaching their destination will take over control of their own vehicle, leave the convoy by exiting off to the side and then continue on their own to their destination. The other vehicles in the road train close the gap and continue on their way until the convoy splits up.

The road trains increase safety and reduce environmental impact thanks to lower fuel consumption compared with cars being driven individually.

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The reason is that the cars in the train are close to each other, exploiting the resultant lower air drag. The energy saving is expected to be in the region of 20 per cent. Road capacity will also be able to be utilised more efficiently.

The Sartre project will be conducted for three years starting in 2011 on test tracks in the UK, Spain and Sweden and eventually on public roads in Spain.

Co-ordinator Tom Robinson, of automotive engineering company Ricardo UK, which is based at Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, said: “The aim is to encourage the development of safe and environmentally effective road trains. By developing and implementing the technology at a vehicle level, Sartre aims to realise the potentially very significant safety and environmental benefits of road trains without the need to invest in changes to road infrastructure.”

Erik Coelingh, technical director of active safety functions at Volvo Cars, said: “I do appreciate that many people feel this sounds like Utopia. However, this type of autonomous driving actually doesn’t require any hocus-pocus technology, and no investment in infrastructure.”