Is there anything more monotonous than being stuck in a long line of traffic when you still have miles to go before your reach your destination? Wouldn’t it be great if you could relax and let somebody else do all the hard work? Well if all goes well with a European research project, that possibility might just become a reality. The Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project will look at linking a series of vehicles in a road train, controlled by a lead vehicle, with communication occurring via wireless sensors.

The SARTRE project has been partly funded under the European Commission's Framework 7 research plan and it is hoped the research will demonstrate shorter travel times, more fuel economy and less congestion. Early work suggests fuel savings could be as great as 20%. It is also expected that the research will indicate less accidents caused by driver fatigue and driver error.

So how does it work? Vehicles will be fitted with a navigation system and a transmitter and receiver which will be used to communicate with the lead driver. The lead vehicle will be driven by an experienced driver who knows the route. The lead driver will have full control over the vehicles within the road train. As a driver approaches the road train they will signal to the lead vehicle that they wish to join in, once accepted they will edge in behind the last vehicle. The lead vehicle will then take full control of the joining vehicle. To leave the convoy, a driver simply signals the lead driver, takes back control of the car and exits off to one side. The vehicles within the convoy close the gap and continue traveling.

There are a number of advantages a road train like this has. Firstly, it allows drivers to relax and tend to other business, such as reading the paper or working on a laptop. Secondly, there will be fuel savings because the cars in the train are close together so the lower air drag is lower than normal. Lastly, it should help to ease road congestion.

SARTRE will be led by Ricardo UK Ltd collaborating with Idiada and Robotiker-Tecnalia of Spain, Institut für Kraftfahrwesen Aachen (IKA) of Germany, and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology of Sweden.

"I do appreciate that many people feel this sounds like Utopia", says Erik Coelingh, technical director of Active Safety Functions at Volvo Cars. “However, this type of autonomous driving actually doesn't require any hocus-pocus technology, and no investment in infrastructure. Instead, the emphasis is on development and on adapting technology that is already in existence. In addition, we must carry out comprehensive testing to verify our high demands on safety."

The project began in September this year and is expected to run for three years with the first test cars equipped with this technology on test tracks as early as 2011.

Source: Ricardo UK, Volvo via BBC.