Self-driving technology on a roll

A new EU-funded project envisions future vehicles having the ability to drive themselves in long convoys on motorways.

The SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project, which will be led by engineering consultancy Ricardo UK, will develop technology that allows vehicles to control acceleration, braking and steering, and drive as part of a ‘road train’ of similarly controlled vehicles.

Ricardo UK claims test cars could be equipped with this technology as early as 2011.

The technology will incorporate a navigation system and a transmitter/receiver unit that communicates with a lead vehicle that drives with full control of all the various functions.

The project collaborators envision the lead would be a taxi, bus, lorry or any vehicle that often uses the road. The navigation systems in the tailing vehicles will be used to join the convoy, where the autonomous driving program takes over.

When nearing their destination, drivers in the convoy can take control over their own vehicle by exiting off to the side. The other vehicles in the road train would close the gap and continue on their way until the convoy splits up. It is estimated vehicles in such convoys could cut fuel use by 20 per cent. Much of this efficiency is gained by the cars driving so close, which lowers the air drag.

SARTRE project coordinator Tom Robinson, of Ricardo UK, said: ‘By developing and implementing the technology at a vehicle level, SARTRE aims to realise the potentially significant safety and environmental benefits of road trains without the need to invest in road infrastructure.’

Other companies in the SARTRE collaboration include Idiada and Robotiker-Tecnalia of Spain, Institut fur Kraftfahrwesen Aachen of Germany, SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology of Sweden.

Siobhan Wagner