Google’s self-driving cars may be out on the road already, but it will take awhile before public is truly ready to give up all driving control to artificial intelligence. In the interim, Volvo has a solution that lets drivers (sometimes) sleep at the wheel while still improving highway safety—and it just completed the first real-world tests.
Dubbed SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment), the EU-backed project is working on road trains—vehicles equipped with software already found in many Volvo vehicles (including laser sensors, cameras, and radars) that are automatically led along the highway by a lead vehicle, which is commandeered by a professional driver. Regular drivers could one day simply use in-car navigation to find the nearest highway road train, get on the tail end, and let the vehicle platoon take over steering, braking, and acceleration.
"What we want to try to do is take cars that we have in production today and modify them as little as possible in order to allow them to drive on the road-train platoon project," explained Erik Coelingh, a technical specialist at Volvo, in an interview with Co.Exist last year.
Earlier this month, SARTRE let a road train loose on a highway in Spain (see video above). The train, which consisted of a Volvo XC60, a Volvo V60, a Volvo S60, a truck, and a lead vehicle, traveled at a respectable 53 mph. All the vehicles in the train copied the actions of the lead vehicle—including steering and braking—using wireless technology.
If unleashed en masse, these road trains could cut down on highway accidents, reduce traffic, and save fuel (since drivers aren’t constantly stopping and starting in traffic).
It’s hard to say when road trains will end up on a highway near you (Volvo hopes to have them on the road in Europe by 2020), who will hire people to drive the lead vehicles, or what happens if the lead driver makes some sort of error. But as Linda Wahlstrom, project manager of the SARTRE project, recently explained in a statement: "Apart from the software developed as part of the project, it is really only the wireless network installed between the cars that set them apart from other cars available in showrooms today."