Cars Safety Technology Transportation

All aboard the ‘road train’

A new European Union research project is giving new meaning to the term tailgating.

The SARTRE project is looking into what it dubs “road trains” or highway “platoons” – essentially groups of cars all heading to a common destination led by a vehicle driven by a professional driver with all the cars in the train linked and controlled by sophisticated navigation systems.

The goals of SARTRE – which stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment – are to improve traffic flow on major highways, reduce fuel consumption and lower CO2 emissions.

The three-year project is being led by engineering firm Ricardo U.K. and is partly funded by the European Commission. Several other Europe-based companies are participating, including technology and R&D company Robotiker-Tecnalia Technology Centre of Spain, Volvo Technology Corp. (a business unit of Volvo Group, which makes trucks, buses and construction equipment) and Volvo Car Corp. The core concept was proposed by Ricardo and refined with other project members that are part of the European Automotive Research Partner Association (EARPA) safety task force.

“The goal is to encourage a step change in transport usage through the development and integration of technologies that will lead to road trains being operated on public highways without modification to the road infrastructure,” says Tom Robinson, SARTRE project co-ordinator with Ricardo U.K.

Robinson adds that car makers have long built active safety systems into their cars, such as antilock braking systems and traction control. But some have also developed more passive technology, at least from the driver’s perspective, that allows a car to nearly drive itself (think of the Lexus LS460 sedan that is capable of parallel parking on its own, with minimal input from the driver).

Starting in 2011, SARTRE will begin testing technology that will take over control of a car’s acceleration as well as braking and steering along with what Robinson calls an organizational assistant that will facilitate commands from a lead vehicle. Lead vehicles and those in the train will be tested on closed tracks in Sweden and Britain and possibly later on public highways.

While many of the specifics of road-train usage haven’t been worked out, Robinson presents what could be a typical scenario: drivers leave their homes to take part in their daily commute. Shortly after they enter the highway, they would meet up with six to eight other cars travelling in close formation.

Once the car communicates (through an Internet connection) with the lead vehicle, which is controlled by a full-time, professional driver and a price is agreed to, the driver would let go of the steering wheel and the car would join the train.

The driver could then relax – make phone calls or read a newspaper. To leave the train, the driver simply takes control of the car to make an exit.

“The goal is for drivers to be able to relax, but not fall asleep,” cautions Robinson. “There will always be a requirement for a driver to interact in some way during joining and exit manoeuvres.”

How a driver handles that interaction is still being studied, as is the optimum distance that cars should remain apart while they’re in a road train.

Robinson acknowledges that average drivers might need additional training to cope with road trains – as would the driver in the lead vehicle – but the benefits would be worth it.

He estimates there would be a 10 to 20 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency among vehicles that are in the train because the cars are closer to one another and reducing aerodynamic drag. They’d also be travelling at a constant speed while in the train. Robinson also believes the trains would make highways safer.

“Given that the driver is a major contributor to road fatalities and we are providing the option for drivers to reduce their control, then we could envisage a 10 per cent reduction in fatalities,” he said. “There is less variation in cruising speed and consequently more stability to traffic flow overall.”

Transportation expert Wendell Cox, principal of consulting firm Demographia of Belleville, Ill., has worked on a variety of transportation projects in Canada and the United States. He says the SARTRE project could have merit, but it should first prove that it’s “commercially viable” and that it’s something that drivers will actually want to take part in, and will feel there’s a pressing need for.

“It raises all sorts of issues,” he says. “The first is, Will it do what it says it’s going to do? And what’s the benefit for the (individual) driver? Are fuel savings enough?”

While one of SARTRE’s goals is to reduce fuel consumption among everyday motorists, Cox says fuel prices will have to rise much further than the near $1 a litre that most Canadians are paying to motivate people to use road trains.

“Fuel is really not that expensive and vehicle technology has improved so much that the miles per gallon average is 20 and in a Toyota Prius it’s 50,” adds Cox.

“The real issue is can we solve the problem of the train itself,” he says, adding that a more intriguing idea is that of GPS-controlled highways, or even specific highway lanes, that allow drivers to access them and then give up control of their cars to satellite technology, while remaining behind the wheel. “But we’re about 20 to 30 years away from that.”

“The technology exists (for GPS highways) but we have to surrender control of the car,” he says.

Published in The Globe and Mail’s Globe Drive on March 25, 2010