Sept. 21 - A new era of autonomous driving may be drawing nearer following successful trials of the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project, sponsored by the European Union. Participating companies have just completed a demonstration drive in Sweden, operating a platoon of three autonomously-driven cars at speeds of up to 90 km/h (56 mph). Jim Drury reports.
These cars look like they're driving too close together. In fact, they're part of an autonomous convoy, controlled by the truck at the front. With another successful test completed of this vehicle platoon project, a future where cars operate without individual drivers is nearing. Volvo engineer Stefan Solyom happily abandoned the wheel during demonstrations on a Swedish motorway. SOUNDBITE (English) VOLVO AUTONOMOUS DRIVE ENGINEER, STEFAN SOLYOM SAYING: "Okay now we are the third car and we are trying to join the road train. We are activating the communication with the lead truck." The cars communicate with each other via cameras, radar and laser sensors, forming road trains behind a lead vehicle operated by a professional driver. SOUNDBITE (English) VOLVO AUTONOMOUS DRIVE ENGINEER, STEFAN SOLYOM SAYING: "And now the communication is established with the lead truck and we are going to request to join the platoon." A wireless communication unit allows cars to mimic the lead vehicle autonomously. Here the lead driver smoothly achieves a lane change. The convoy travelled at speeds of up to 90 kilometres per hour, sometimes no more than four metres apart. All the vehicles were completely detached from one another and could leave the procession at any time. Drivers could soon fulfil a variety of previously unthinkable tasks while supposedly behind the wheel. SOUNDBITE (English) VOLVO AUTONOMOUS DRIVE ENGINEER, STEFAN SOLYOM READING A NEWSPAPER AND SAYING: "This is really what this technology is about. We are trying to give you your time back and you can basically read or relax or start working on your way to work. The vehicle is fully automatic and you do not have to worry about driving anymore." The companies behind the EU-sponsored project, known as SARTRE, insist safety is not compromised and is, in fact, enhanced by the system. They say inter-vehicle reaction response times are fast and avoid the human errors responsible for 80 per cent of crashes. Traffic tailbacks could be reduced and cars benefit from lower air drag, potentially saving up to 20 percent in energy costs. Toscan Bennet of Volvo believes that convincing an initially sceptical public will be the next challenge. SOUNDBITE (English) VOLVO PRODUCT PLANNING VICE PRESIDENT, TOSCAN BENNET SAYING: "People do not think twice about getting into an airplane with auto-pilot or getting in to a train without a person controlling it. The idea is really no different here in this car. So it something that people need to get accustomed to. And once you are here and enjoying it, it is fantastic." SARTRE says its system could be integrated on conventional highways and operate in a mixed environment with existing road users. It believes the system could be seen on European roads within a decade.