The automobile has been with us for well over a century and while road laws, traffic management and automotive technology in general have constantly evolved during that time, the act of driving remains essentially the same - it's all up to the person behind the wheel. That's what makes the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project so significant - it represents the beginning of a new era where the organized chaos of individual drivers can be blunted by an autonomous "follow-the-leader" approach that has clear benefits for road safety, congestion and vehicle fuel consumption ... not to mention being a bonus for those of us who would rather read the paper than concentrate in the road ahead. As demonstrated by a platoon of Volvos driving automatically along a public motorway outside Barcelona recently, this reality may be closer than you think.
Part-funded by the European Commission, SARTRE is a joint venture between Ricardo UK Ltd, Applus Idiada, Robotiker, Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge Aachen (IKA), SP Technical Research Institute, Volvo Technology and Volvo Car Corporation. It works by using a high-tech suite of cameras, radar and laser sensors to enable a wirelessly linked "platoon" of cars to travel autonomously in a road train behind a lead vehicle operated by a professional driver.
The project started in 2009 and the technology was successfully demonstrated at the Volvo Proving Ground near Gothenburg, Sweden, back in 2010. In the latest milestone, the SARTRE platoon took to the motorways of Spain amidst other road users in a journey that saw a Volvo XC60, a Volvo V60, a Volvo S60 and one truck drive automatically behind the lead vehicle at 85 km/h (53 mph) separated by a distance of as little as five meters (16.4 feet). Using Ricardo's autonomous control system, each of the vehicles was able to accelerate, brake and turn in exactly the same fashion as the lead vehicle.
"People think that autonomous driving is science fiction, but the fact is that the technology is already here," says Linda Wahlström, project manager for the SARTRE project at Volvo Car Corporation.
"We covered 200 kilometres in one day and tried out gaps [between vehicles] from five to 15 meters. From the purely conceptual viewpoint it works fine, and the road train will be around in one form or another in the future."
As well as freeing up the driver from the hassle of actually controlling the vehicle, the project promises benefits in terms of safety, congestion (meaning faster travel times) and fuel consumption, which could be reduced by as much as 20 percent on the highway.
The system is also designed to be retrofitted to vehicles currently in production.
"We've focused really hard on changing as little as possible in existing systems," says Wahlström. "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."
Volvo says that the next phase of the project will focus on analysis of fuel consumption. The aim is also to develop strategies and business models for real world use of the technology (we predict a rise in mobile coffee machine sales).