Autonomous road train project completes first public road test


May 28, 2012

The autonomously controlled Volvo convoy takes part in the first demonstration of SARTRE technology on public roads

The autonomously controlled Volvo convoy takes part in the first demonstration of SARTRE technology on public roads

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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."

Linda Wahlström, project manager for the SARTRE project at Volvo Car Corporation

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).

Source: Volvo, SARTRE

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007. All articles by Noel McKeegan

So if the lead car has a head on collision , there will be an autonomous pile up!


This is cool, but what about the SARTRE vs Kangaroo scenario? How does it avoid kangaroos in the Aussie outback? The roos here just jump out from behind trees at dusk & dawn and stare at you in the middle of the road thinking they're tough.. 0.5 seconds later there's bits of kangaroo & car every where. I'd be amazed if the collision avoidance is that quick at highway speeds. And then what happens in a crash, does SARTRE just keep going because its more fuel efficient.


One would have thought this system (requiring a professional lead driver) will be superseded by driverless cars generally, but it is still useful research into organising driverless convoys into road trains that will save fuel at highway speeds and also maximising traffic movement in congested areas.


Well, if I am not mistaken such built in things like radar are easily capable of identifying potential threat much faster and with higher accuracy then any human being on earth. It brakes hard before you hit your skippy down under. So the rest is braking hard as well. I know that such systems can identify children standing between cars. That was around 5 years ago. The problem was that within urban streets very much information has to be processed. On the freeway it is a piece of cake for a quad-core to calculate and re-check before you even get any finger moved. Those systems are not robotic and one-way trains. Conclusion: asking if it can prevent skippy-accidents or what if leader is crashing are valid, but just calling that stupid not knowing what the system is capable of is ignorant. Sorry to use such harsh words, but QUESTIONS are the key, it is part of the communication. BLAMING is just an effort to try not to think about it deeply. There is one big thing valid for all concepts all over the world: STANDARDS!!!! Without them we have a multi-choice and no-one is taking anything in the end. All together in the same direction and we will move on fast. With my very best regards from Austria, Martin

Martin Huiber

I can guarentee this will happen sooner than you think - and yes, most likely in Australia first! Reason - simple, it's all about saving money and cutting margins, and the place where that matters most is commerical haulage.

Imagine any transport company who can replace half a dozen drivers with just one, who can then drive across large open cross country journeys at a fraction of the cost (driver and fuel efficient in all one go!). Once you arrive at a city based destination, have local drivers who can do the last leg of smaller localised deliveries.

So business will drive this forward far quicker than us 'punters'


It is a bit like pilotless commercial passenger aircraft. They can be flown remotely by some deskbound pilot today in much the same way drones are. But will it ever become the norm. Not in a million years! It might lead to the loss of the first officer position, but there will always be a captain on the aircraft ready to take over.

Five minutes spent looking at YouTube car accidents should be sufficient to convince anyone that there are so many weird crash scenarios that no amount of prevention measures can eliminate completely it will be impossible to dispose of the need for a driver unless the car can be made to run on rails of some kind. The first accident that could remotely be blamed on the system will be and there it will cease.

Cars can be made a lot easier to drive and thus a lot safer, demanding far less driver skills than is currently the case. Some of us are competent drivers, some are simply incapable of being competent drivers (take my third wife - please!). If we can reduce the level of competence required, then car use will be open to more and safer for all.

The technology exists to make it impossible to go faster than the safe speed for the location and conditions, such as fog, or exceed 5 mph in a supermarket carpark with children on the loose; never run a red light except when safe to do so such as when all the traffic has slowed due to an accident or emergency, say; never pull out into oncoming traffic, or exit from a side road onto a main road unless it is safe to do so; etc. etc.

It might be possible to automate a lot of the driver functions when on a motorway, but never to the point where the driver does not have responsibility for maintaining the set speed and correct lane position. The biggest problem then will be falling asleep at the wheel. As for reading a newspaper, no way!

Mel Tisdale

Australians Love to think that they have a monopoly on things that spring out onto the road...

Most countries have things to hit, other than kangaroos...

Deer are just as "Unpredictable" to the Driver who isn't looking for them...

I agree with comment (Martin) Trust the computer more than trust the Driver who may as well be asleep... (Long boring drives lulls most people into idiocy.)


Ahh, the economy of a train. The railroads have been telling us that for years.

I've even conjectured about personal automobiles that could ride the rails with headway clearance systems to maintain a safe distance. The rails these days are very smooth and don't go clickety-clack. Just lean back and enjoy the scenery while it lasts. It wouldn't take long for billboards to spring up to hide the scenery.

Of course there could be problems if a car broke down or ran out of gas. You would need a quick "ejection system" to put the car off to the side and out of the way. What a nightmare this could turn into. Miles from anything, a carload of kids etc.

Mr E

Mr E

Call me "old fashioned" if you will, but I still believe it's simpler and more reliable to just LOOK WHERE YOU'RE GOING! We need to stop treating "texting while driving", looking off to the side etc. as "distracted driving" instead of what it is. It IS NEGLIGENCE. Distracted is like, say, somebody shooting at you from the side of the road. Not paying attention because one chooses to apply focus to something else, such as texting is just an irresponsible, negligent lapse of judgement and utterly selfish, all too often with predictably tragic results. If it were up to me text inputting would be disabled on any phone travelling at vehicular speed and ALWAYS in a dash mounted device when the vehicle is not at zero speed as indicated by the ABS system. After the first automobile manufacturer is held liable for NOT interlocking access, common sense will be applied. Smashing your car is OK with me as long as no innocents suffer, but,alas, all too often this is not the case.


For the most part, this sort of technology is a complicated way of reinventing the railway - a piece of old tech which we know works. I'd say that was definitely the case for heavy freight haulage, while acknowledging that countries like Australia present climatic difficulties for railway lines (expansion/contraction of rails).

Self-driving cars make private transport obsolete. The logical next step is a dial-a-ride automated taxi. That, or (whisper it) ... an effective public transport service?

Alexander Lowe

Still wasting money on systems that are based on one vehicle per person transportation. Why have a system that relies on a 3,000 pound vehicle to transport a 150 lb. person, or 225 lbs. if they are the average obese American? We need high speed trains between cities and light rail inside small towns and subways in the large cities. These have worked extremely well for decades and are better for the environment and for the waistline as well.

You will be hard pressed to find a fat person in Europe where else that people have the option of using their feet, bicycles and mass transportation. In USA we let big business create an inefficient and highly subsidized transportation system that wastes fuel and hardens arteries.


How are these "trains" linked? How long could they be? What if someone needs to squeeze into a "train" in order to get access to an offramp? Will the "train" allow people to cut in?


The scariest thing about a platoon of autonomous Volvos following the pilot vehicle is that the lead car's operator is a Volvo driver.


Without a doubt I believe this technology will come and certainly appears to be very good. I do not doubt that as an accident prevention tool ((& being an ex Melb to Perth truck driver) kangaroo/emu/cattle or anything else), it would react far quicker and safer than a human could. Mind you, down here in Australia we have real "road trains" however they are connected. Prime mover with multiple trailers.

I do have a few questions however. How does this system manage where the lead vehicle may have lighter pay load and more horsepower on an incline, specially if it were a road train of our "road trains"; Is the drivers speed overridden to restrict the speed to that of the slower following vehicle or is it left behind? How far before the link is broken?

If all the following vehicles are reliant on the lead vehicle; (1) What happens when you approach road works where lights control the flow of traffic or a traffic controller (lollypop person) and the lights change to red half way through the road train?

(2)If for some reason the following vehicles cannot stop as quick as the lead, what sort of action does the following vehicle take; Does it still follow or does it take avoidance steps?


As far as collision avoidance is concerned I think the lead vehicle could potentially take advantage of night vision developments to detect rogue kangaroos and the like, and deploy some sort of missile to dispatch them before they cause convoy collisions.

As far as use of the road trains is concerned I can see having the lead driver program his destination, or the destination of the vehicles in the road train, into a publicly accessible database, allowing others to select a destination from the many road trains available at any given time/location. A 'train station' might be used to prepare to 'follow the leader' and as soon as the train comes rolling by, the target vehicle is brought 'up to speed' on an entrance ramp.

Some thought may need to be given to the 'health' of each unit that is determined to join the convoy. Possibly through use of a pre-connect health check that would wirelessly transmit engine diagnostics to the same system used to link vehicles with their respective trains. A health check would have to include fuel levels and possibly number of passengers, as well as other potential elements that might compromise the integrity of the convoy.

Wayne Bothun
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