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Road Trains Of Self-Driving Trucks To Save Fuel And Cut Costs

These caravans of vehicles driven by just the first car are coming soon to Japan. And after that, you’ll be able to get on the highway and read a newspaper while you commute.

We’ve written before about "road trains"—where a series of driver-less vehicles are linked electronically with a manned vehicle, and led along the highway. The European Union, for example, is funding a big project called SARTRE—what else?—or Safe Road Trains for the Environment.

Researchers claim that road trains can reduce fuel consumption (because the vehicles are close enough to benefit from drag), cut congestion (because vehicles are more efficiently spaced), and are safer (less human intervention). What is more, they might allow drivers to arrive less stressed-out, they say. In the future, you may be able to find a road-train on your navigation system, hook yourself in, and take a nice long nap.

The video here is from a project in Japan, developing technology for heavy trucks. The principle is the same as with the car project. The second, third, and fourth vehicles are programmed to follow the lead truck. In the latest trial, at a testing track in Tsukuba City, north of Tokyo, the caravan went about 50 mph. The government-funded New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) says the "platoon" reduces fuel costs by 15% per vehicle.

As well as communicating with the lead vehicle, the follower-trucks have cameras and infrared laser radars to help sense obstacles in front of them, and to follow the white lines painted on the road. In other words, they are not completely dependent on the lead vehicle always doing the right thing. NEDO says the first truck can also be driven autonomously, though it still needs a driver in the cab. If there’s any danger, he or she can switch from self-driving to manual driving mode with a click of a button.

In a written statement, NEDO says it expects the technology to be ready commercially by 2020, though only at a safer 20 to 30 meters between the trucks. Closer distances, less than 10 meters, won’t be ready until some time between 2020 and 2030, it says.

Even if it’s that far off, the opportunity to haul four-times more stuff, pay only one driver, and cut fuel consumption at the same time, seems too good to miss.

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