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Summary:

Picture this: You hop on Interstate 280 in San Francisco, close in on a line of cars, and then kick back and relax — taking your hands off the wheel and foot off the accelerator — until you get to Sand Hill Road half an hour […]

road-train1Picture this: You hop on Interstate 280 in San Francisco, close in on a line of cars, and then kick back and relax — taking your hands off the wheel and foot off the accelerator — until you get to Sand Hill Road half an hour later and opt to peel off from the group. That’s the experience that researchers in the EU are hoping to create within a decade, using vehicles outfitted with wireless sensors, a navigation system and a transmitter/receiver unit to communicate with the vehicle at the front of the line.

Backed by the European Commission, a research team led by Ricardo UK and dubbed SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) has launched a 3-year trial of this “road train” technology, in which a lead driver controls a convoy of up to seven wirelessly-linked vehicles, as part of an effort to slash fuel consumption by up to 20 percent per vehicle, reduce travel times and minimize congestion, the BBC reports.
road-train

SARTRE project coordinator Tom Robinson, of Ricardo UK (a firm that frequently provides consulting for vehicle intelligence projects), tells the BBC that eventually, drivers linking up with a platoon might pay a fee to the lead driver. Project partners at this point have yet to complete preliminary research, but by 2011 they plan to start testing the system on tracks in the UK, Spain and Sweden, as well as on public roadways in Spain, according to the BBC. Volvo (one of the project partners) says in its release about the project that the first track tests could begin as early as 2011.

Think it sounds a little — or a lot — “out-there?” Erik Coelingh, technical director of Active Safety Functions at Volvo, explains in the release about SARTRE, he can “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. Instead, the emphasis is on development and on adapting technology that is already in existence.” Yep, that’s our friendly silicon, chips, communication networks and information technology.

Graphics courtesy of Volvo

By Josie Garthwaite

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  1. I think it a great idea. Sure, problems to be solved but that’s what research is all about.

    I used to live in the Central Valley of CA where the tule fog can set in for days and it was hard to see more than a couple car lengths in front of your ride.

    The Highway Patrol used to run ‘convoys’ for those of us who had to make our way north or south on Highway 99. They would cruise along a bit under the speed limit with their lights flashing and we would fall in behind like ducklings following mom. It decreased our odds of smashing into a stopped vehicle.

    Think of being able to put a lead car in the HP position, one with really good radar able to probe miles ahead for stopped vehicles, whatever. Ducklings queue up on the freeway entrances and wait for a “hook up” signal from the last car in the convoy. Accelerate into line and go on auto pilot.

    Get a notice from your car ahead of reaching your peel off time.

    Even stick one of those ‘rear defender’ trucks that they use to protect line painting trucks at the back of the pack. Could mean an end to the huge multi-vehicle pileups in the fog….

    Oh, and collision avoidance radar is already being factory installed in some up market cars. Radar could make individual drivers in the train aware of something like a dog or deer running toward the road.

    1. How cool – I didn’t know about those Highway 99 convoys. Anyone know if that’s been tried elsewhere?

  2. Been there, done that.

    In 1997 California PATH demoed a fully functional “road train” in San Diego. See the video at

    http://www.path.berkeley.edu/PATH/Publications/Videos/NAHSC2.html#

    1. Not quite. The PATH system required a special roadway (see the Berkeleyan’s explanation here: http://berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/0819/path.html). In the Sartre project, all of the tech will be installed on the vehicles themselves — an important difference if this tech is going to get beyond the demo stage.

      1. I wonder about trains and special roadways and all that stuff.

        I just read a blurb about DARPA currently testing driverless cars driving through real traffic.

        I’m guessing that implementation might be less restrictive than what is suggested in this article.

        Start with putting radar in cars. Radar locks you on to the vehicle in front of you. It slows down, your car slows down. Sophisticated cruise control.

        Radar monitors for unusual ‘things’ on a collision course. Acquire a target and the vehicle begins to slow down/brake, alerts the driver, and sends a slow down alert to surrounding/following cars.

        Everything except notifying other cars is technology already being installed.

        There are vacuum cleaners that are that smart.

        Put position guides along highways. These might be nothing more sophisticated than the painted lines on roads in non-snowy conditions. Visual markers of some sort. Something cheap.

        I’m not seeing a need for a ‘lead driver’. Certainly no need for an implanted road cable like early test systems.

      2. Granted, but it’s certainly not a brand-new “whoa!” idea, it was demoed more than 10 years ago. It’s an egregious omission to neglect to mention that. The magnets in the roadway are pretty ingenious actually, they make a vision system (if that’s what the SARTE researchers are going to use for lanekeeping) unnecessary, and they are totally impervious to rain/snow or other environmental/lighting conditions which confuse vision systems. There is no reason in principle magnets could not be placed inside reflectors that are commonly installed on roadways, in California at least.

  3. News stories will be something like:

    A disgruntled computer programmer hacked his own car’s wifi system, re-programmed it, and “stole” a convoy of cars, leading them to the wrong destination in the middle of nowhere.

    (-:

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