Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

European Researchers Plan Automated "Road Trains"

A system for virtually linking cars could cut fuel consumption by 20 percent, and allow for hands-free driving.

  • November 10, 2009

A project funded by the European Commission is developing “road trains”–a potentially inexpensive way to automate vehicles, the BBC says.

If cars were automated and networked–communicating with each other to coordinate their speeds, to allow passing and merging, and to warn each other of sudden stops–it might be possible for more cars to use the same roads while at the same time reducing traffic jams, saving fuel now wasted while idling on the freeway. Automated vehicles could also save gas by driving steadily–avoiding gas guzzling bursts of acceleration–or by allowing vehicles to follow so close that they reduce overall wind drag.

But proposals for how to build such a system often rely on the installation of sensors and communication hubs all along roads, which could be expensive. The EU-financed project takes a different approach that wouldn’t require that roadways be instrumented.

In the proposed system, a professional driver would operate a lead vehicle. Other drivers could elect to pull up behind that vehicle and virtually link to it, establishing a wireless connection. That vehicle would automatically follow along behind the lead vehicle, freeing its driver to eat breakfast or read a book or whatever. Several other cars could also line up behind the lead vehicle, forming a sort-of train. When you approach your destination, you’d leave the train, resuming control of the car. A BBC infographic at the link above, and this illustration help explain it. Apparently, reducing wind drag could cut fuel consumption by 20 percent.

I wonder if this approach could help ease people’s concern about handing over controls to their vehicle. Will having a professional driver at the lead make the system seem safer? Or will adding the human element make it more dangerous?

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