A brave new world of motorway driving looms. Sue Baker looks ahead to the time a few years hence when technology will take over and let you sit back with a newspaper and a cup of coffee while your car wafts you towards your destination.
Back in the dark ages of the 20th century, all manner of clever developments were predicted for motoring beyond the millennium. Well, here we are, eleven years into the 21st century, and cars don’t fly or cruise driverless along the nation’s motorways. Not yet, anyway. But an intriguing recent experiment has demonstrated that driverless cars may well be the future of motorway travel a decade or so from now.
It brings a new word into the motoring landscape: platooning. This is the term coined for cars travelling in multi-vehicle convoys, prevented from running into one another by sophisticated electronics, and led by a guide vehicle driven by a professional driver. Imagine a line of baby ducks swimming across a pond behind a mother duck leading the way, and you pretty much get the idea.
How does it work? By combining camera-operated and computer-controlled adaptive cruise control systems with drive-by-wire technology and a vehicle-to-vehicle wireless network. This complex package of kit spaces the cars at a controlled distance apart, tethered electronically, so they can all travel safely at speed in a line while their occupants sit back and let the car-train take the strain.
This system has been under development principally by Volvo working with technology companies under the umbrella of the EU-funded SARTRE project: it stands for SAfe Road TRains for the Environment. On a snowy test track near Gothenburg in Sweden a few weeks ago, some of Europe’s cleverest automotive engineers put it to the test, with a Volvo car ‘platoon’ running behind a Volvo truck, and they proved very effectively that it can work.
The boffins now believe that platooning has a viable future. Erik Coelingh, Volvo Cars’ engineering specialist, said of the test: “We are very pleased to see that the various systems work so well together already the first time. After all, the systems come from seven SARTRE-member companies in four countries.”
Carrying out the test in winter let the multinational engineering team check the viability of platooning in some of the toughest conditions. Each vehicle in the convoy constantly measures the distance, speed and direction of the vehicle directly in front of it, and automatically adjusts its movement to stay in formation. Each car’s steering, acceleration and braking is controlled by computer, while a sophisticated wireless network lets all the vehicles communicate with one another.
Platooning has obvious benefits. Cars running on motorways at a steady speed in close convoys, only a few metres apart, would save fuel and reduce traffic congestion, as well as cutting accident risk. It’s an old but true cliché that the nut holding the steering wheel is a car’s least reliable component, prone to human error, distraction and fatigue.
Of course, platooning has potential drawbacks too, relying heavily on a professional driver up front who is still a human being potentially prone to making a mistake. But there are built-in safety measures too: cabin-mounted cameras and smart software to monitor the driver’s eye position and alertness.
The SARTRE team estimate that it will be at least another ten years before platooning could become commercially available. Then the question will be whether drivers will welcome it, or find riding in fast motorway convoys with no hands on the steering wheel too unnerving a prospect. DC