Reading the morning paper while behind the wheel of your car might sound like surefire recipe for disaster, but in the not-too-distant future it might just become a safer and more economical option than actually doing the driving yourself. That's the theory behind SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project – a synthesis of personal and public transport that will allow cars to be daisy-chained and automatically controlled by a lead vehicle in a process dubbed "platooning." The project has now made the leap from simulator to real roads in the first successful demonstration of the technology at the Volvo Proving Ground near Gothenburg, Sweden.

"This is a major milestone for this important European research programme," says Tom Robinson, SARTRE project coordinator, of Ricardo UK Ltd. "Platooning offers the prospect of improved road safety, better road space utilization, improved driver comfort on long journeys and reduced fuel consumption and hence CO2 emissions. With the combined skills of its participating companies, SARTRE is making tangible progress towards the realisation of safe and effective road train technology".

Vehicles linked in a platoon are guided by a professional driver in a lead vehicle with each car constantly monitoring the distance, speed and direction relative to the car in front and automatically making adjustments to keep the road-train on track – in other words, you sit back and relax while the brakes, accelerator and steering wheel are automatically operated. Vehicles can also leave the platoon at any time.

The recent tests conducted in Sweden successfully demonstrated a single car following a lead vehicle (Volvo's automated Safety Truck) around the country road test track.

The key to the success of the approach clearly hinges on the lead driver.

“A professional, well-trained driver leading the road train is an important factor to ensure safety in the project,” says Erik Nordin at Volvo Technology.

To support the lead driver, technology such as driver alerts, forward collision warning, ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and Adaptive Cruise Control are integrated in the lead vehicle and Volvo is working on further enhancements to this part of the system.

According to the SARTRE release, the "technology development is well underway and could most likely go into production in a few years time."

If the system is widely implemented, the researchers believe that the removal of the human factor will reduce accidents caused by driver distraction, improve fuel economy and reduce emissions by up to 20 percent and help ease traffic congestion.

Public acceptance of the idea, along with the need for changes in government legislation are likely to be bigger stumbling blocks than the technology itself.

The SARTRE project is part-funded by the European Commission and led by Ricardo UK Ltd in collaboration 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.