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.