Semi-autonomous driving has long been the focus of fiction, but the vision of a motoring Utopia is quickly becoming a reality. Advances in technology, combined with the demand for greater safety and fuel economy, is fueling the development of cars that can drive themselves with limited human input.
One such experiment in this field is called the “Safe Road Trains for the Environment” (SARTRE) system, which will enter real world testing in Europe later this month. When equipped with advanced automation and sensing technology, a group of cars are able to follow each other in a convoy or platoon. The only vehicle in the convoy requiring human input is the lead vehicle at the front of the convoy, which is intended to be driven by a professional driver in a bus or truck.
Drivers that aren’t in the lead vehicle can take their eyes off the road and read a book, watch TV, or operate a phone or computer during their commute. When a driver is approaching his or her destination, they’re able to take control of their vehicle and leave the convoy. The gap in the convoy will be closed and the group will continue until the entire convoy splits up.
“I do appreciate that many people feel this sounds like Utopia,” says Erik Coelingh, technical director of Active Safety Functions at Volvo Cars. “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. In addition, we must carry out comprehensive testing to verify our high demands on safety.”
This project aims to improve traffic flow, reduce commute times, and curb fuel consumption. It’s expected to dramatically reduce the number of traffic accidents, as human error will also be minimized. As Volvo’s Coelingh points out, the system can also operate without any modifications to existing public highways.
“SARTRE is really pushing the boundaries in this aspect of ITS technology and is already providing some extremely useful and actionable results,” said Tom Robinson, SARTRE project coordinator of Ricardo UK Ltd. “We now look forward to the next stage of the work of the project which will see vehicle tests, initially of just of a single vehicle for sensor, actuator and control system validation, then of a two vehicle platoon later this year and subsequently through the remainder of the project, a multiple vehicle platoon in order to test, develop, validate and identify remaining implementation issues for the entire SARTRE system.”
Recently, search giant Google announced their own autonomous driving technology. SARTRE differs from this system in that it relies more on technology and components that are already in use. Google’s system on the other hand doesn’t use a lead car at all, as it can “see” traffic and navigate roads using mapping data from Google’s data centers.