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Ready For Cars That Drive Themselves?

Posted in Car Tech, Environment, Featured, Safety, Videos by Kurt Ernst | January 20th, 2011 | 6 Responses |

Road train participant, or average U.S. commuter?

Picture this: you pull on the highway during your morning commute and soon catch up to a “road train”, or a series of cars autonomously following a tractor trailer at the head of the line. Your car asks if you’d like to join the road train, and you accept in order to enjoy a nice, leisurely breakfast and news updates on your tablet computer. Half an hour later you disengage, exit and drive the local roads to your job. For most commuters, this is a future that can’t come soon enough; for those of us who consider ourselves drivers, it’s something out of a science fiction nightmare. As the video (after the jump) demonstrates, the technology is already on the horizon.

Called “SARTRE”, for SAfe Road TRains for the Environment, the project is an EU initiative involving collaboration between Volvo cars, Volvo trucks, Aachen University, Technalia, Applus Idiada and Ricardo. On paper, the idea is simple enough: sensors in specially equipped trucks would send signals to following cars equipped with receivers. In turn, cars would follow the truck (or another car in the road train) at a safe distance, and would brake and steer according to actions from the truck driver. The assumption is that whoever is behind the wheel of the truck will obey the speed limit and operate their vehicle in a safe manner. Based on my experience with truckers in the U.S., that’s not always the case. God help anyone following trash haulers out of NYC to landfills in Pennsylvania.

Such road trains would indeed reduce overall fuel consumption, and I can see where they’d potentially improve safety. The technology required to make cars autonomous would come at a price, and it’s not likely that current vehicles could be easily (or inexpensively) adapted. As in Europe, overcoming the legal issues would be the biggest obstacle on this side of the pond; for example, who’d be at fault if a road train lead driver violated traffic laws? Would every driver be fined? How about insurance? Would any insurance company in their right mind agree to issue a policy covering road train drivers? There’s way too much potential risk and not enough to gain from their perspective.

Even if the technology exists to implement this in the very near future, it’s unlikely that the legal and political issues will be resolved any time soon. For now, if you see the driver next to you reading the paper at 70 miles per hour, you’re still correct to be afraid.

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6 Responses

  1. Mason says:

    You know, since I was a kid I always thought it would be an amazing thing if cars could drive themselves, at the same time I wanted my license since I was about five years old. But I still believe that we should be driving cars, with the proper defensive training and road worthy vehicles, and if you don’t want to drive then public transport or car pooling may be a better option. What I really want to know is what if the leader of the train has a wreck with another driver, or has a blow out and end up in a ditch. Do the other cars disengage or do they follow the leader into the ditch?

  2. Jim says:

    I can just see it now. Some idiot here that is the lead driver fall asleep and drive off a bridge and watch the rest of people follow like a bunch lemmings.

  3. Kurt Ernst says:

    And that is why this technology will be contested by insurance companies for years…

  4. Bartow Ford says:

    Having the system based on the driver in front of you is the worst idea ever; what if you’re behind someone who is drunk or a reckless driver? What if they accidentally cross the yellow lines and hit opposite traffic head on? What if they constantly swerve and drive aggressively? What if you’re just stuck behind an idiot that can’t drive? The idea is good but it shouldn’t be modeled after the actions in front of you.

    I solved the commuting issue by moving 2 miles away from work, not feasible for everyone but works for me.

  5. Pozz says:

    it already exist, its called: “Taxi”

  6. Robert says:

    so who’s libel when the computer crashes and the wrecks start?? this is a crazy thing to try, hell, my computer just crashed yesterday, glad i wasn’t driving it……………