The European SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project, which is developing technology to automate slipstreaming of multiple vehicles on highways, is now a year into its three-year program. The first year has been spent ironing out the concept and investigating the requirements of a prototype system, as well as how people will react to using it. Now the program is set to enter the implementation phase, starting with the testing of a single lead and following vehicle.

The benefits of slipstreaming or drafting in reducing fuel consumption (and therefore CO2 emissions) are well known and the technique is already widely used in bike and car racing. The team says exploiting the resultant lower air drag would allow vehicles to achieve energy savings in the region of 20 percent. But that’s only one of the benefits that the project hopes to bring to drivers.

The SARTRE team says a system that enables vehicles to automatically follow a lead vehicle driven by a trained driver would also reduce accidents, improve traffic flow and free drivers from the monotonous task of highway driving, thereby allowing them to catch up on some reading, watch a movie or get some work done on a laptop. When they are approaching their destination, the driver takes control of their vehicle and leaves the convoy, with the remaining vehicles closing the gap as the road-train continues on its way.

The technology could also be used in that most frustrating of low speed situations – the traffic jam – to allow vehicles to follow the vehicle in front until the congestion clears.

With the project aiming to carry out the first development tests of a single lead and following vehicle before the end of 2010, the installation of the necessary hardware and software into the two vehicles has already commenced. This includes a navigation system, a transmitter/receiver system that communicates with the lead vehicle and technology that can take control of braking, acceleration and steering. Since the systems are built into the cars, no need to add any additional infrastructure to existing roads.

Additionally, as shown in a short documentary film produced by SARTRE (below), the technology has been tested in a road train simulator. One of the goals of the simulator tests has been to see how people react to tailgating a car traveling at speeds of 90 km/h (56 mph) without actually controlling the car. While some people were found to completely trust the system, others are understandably a little more wary.

The SARTRE project aims to carry out the first single lead and single following vehicle tests before the end of December, 2010, with the goal of demonstrating a five-vehicle road train that can handle interactions with other road users to be carried out in 2011 and early 2012. However, the team admits that, even if all the technology required for the system is validated, it will probably take ten years or more before such rolling road trains become a reality on our highways.

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