Technology that links a chain of semi-autonomous vehicles to a lead car has undergone its first trials at a Volvo test track in Sweden. The “road train” system, which allows cars to link into “trains” in which the lead car sets the pace and direction for the cars linked behind it, could be deployed on European roadways by the end of the decade.
The idea is to cut fuel use, cut congestion, and make highways safer by allowing those traveling long distance on highways to link up with other drivers going the same way. Once a driver falls in line behind the lead vehicle and establishes a wireless link, an adaptive cruise control system kicks in to match the leader’s speed while a battery of sensors ensure all vehicles in the train maintain a safe distance from each other.
The following vehicles then follow the leader autonomously, leaving the drivers behind to take their hands off their wheels, pull up Netflix or the newspaper on the iPad, and otherwise take it easy until it’s time to retake control of the vehicle and leave the convoy.
In this initial test a single Volvo car was linked to a truck using the EU-backed SARTRE system (Safe Road Trains for the Environment), which is being developed by a larger European partnership involving universities, technology companies, and, of course, Volvo. The test was a success at the low speeds tested – you can see the driver taking his hands from the wheel of the Volvo and, somewhat nervously, reading a newspaper in this video of the test – but because of the complicated differences in traffic laws across more than two dozen EU nations, it could take several years to iron out a legal framework enabling the deployment of the tech.