Volvo Develops an Automated 'Road Train'

Imagine falling asleep behind the wheel of your car.

Now imagine being encouraged to fall asleep behind the wheel, or read, or eat or do just about anything other than drive.

That’s the idea behind SARTRE -- Safe Road Trains for the Environment -- a project funded by the European Union to develop autonomous vehicles that can travel down the road in “platoons,” one electronically tied to the next like the cars of a train.

It’s closer to reality than it sounds.

Volvo recently demonstrated the concept on a test track, where a car pulled behind a tractor trailer, connected to it wirelessly and proceed to steer itself down the road in perfect sync with the lead truck. Information on speed and direction was fed from the truck to the car, which was also fitted with cameras and other sensory equipment to help it keep its distance from surrounding vehicles and provide an added level of safety in the event that something went wrong with the train.

Much of the technology involved is a development of features already found in Volvo cars. Adaptive radar cruise control, blind spot intervention and cameras that can spot cars and pedestrians in front of a moving vehicle and stop it without any driver intervention before a collision happens are already on the market.

In theory, dozens of cars could line up in this fashion, following much more closely than is safe when people are solely in control of the vehicles. The lead vehicle - a bus or designated road train "engine" - would be controlled by a professional driver following a scheduled route. The researchers behind the project say that this could lead to less congestion on the roads, fewer accidents and increased fuel efficiency for all of the cars involved, not to mention more productive time spent behind the wheel by the redundant “driver.”

With a large number of legal and regulatory hurdles needed to be worked out before this sort of system makes it on to public roads, don’t start looking for a road train to couple on to anytime soon. But, according to Volvo, the technology is progressing so quickly that it could be technically feasible to implement it in the real world within 10 years.