Motorway driving just got a hell of a lot safer -- and a hell of a lot more terrifying at the same time. Volvo has successfully demonstrated a vehicle road-train system that allows cars to drive themselves in convoy on the motorway.
The demonstration, part of an EU-financed Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE -- PDF link) project, proved that drivers in a Volvo 'platoon' can relinquish control to the car, enjoying a spot of coffee, surfing the Internet or even having a snooze while they're ferried to their destination.
SARTRE platoons are guided by a lead vehicle, which is driven by a professional driver. This car is followed by a succession of other, computer-controlled cars that are electronically tethered in the convoy. Each vehicle in the platoon measures the distance, speed and direction of the vehicle directly in front, adjusting its movements to stay in formation.
Unsurprisingly, there's a metric horsetonne of technology that goes into making this possible. Each platoon car uses cameras to detect the position of the vehicle in front, all have drive-by-wire technology that allows the steering, accelerator and brakes to be controlled by a computer, and all communicate using a car-to-car wireless network.
Volvo believes platooning has numerous benefits beyond allowing users to relax at the wheel. The firm says it could improve road safety, as it minimises the involvement of fleshy humans, whose lack of attention and skill are the triggers for most accidents.
Platooning could also relieve traffic congestion, as vehicles travel in close convoy with only a few metres gap between them. The company says vehicle platoons could also reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions since those in convoy are less likely to accelerate aggressively.
The obvious weak link in the SARTRE platoon system is the driver leading the convoy, but Volvo has implemented a host of additional safety features that reduce the chances of Johnny Human becoming distracted and causing an expensive multi-car pile up.
Volvo's Alcoguard breathalyser system ensures the driver is sober before permitting them to start the lead vehicle, while cabin-mounted video cameras track the orientation of the driver's face to ensure they're looking dead ahead. Clever software monitors the position of their eyes too, to ensure they haven't fallen asleep at the wheel.
Volvo says vehicle platooning won't be available commercially for at least another 10 years, but we imagine it could come in handy for long-haul delivery personnel who can rely on one driver to lead a platoon while others sleep, before handing the lead to fully rested drivers later in the journey.
SARTRE-style platooning could also come in handy for ordinary consumers in low-speed traffic, where cars autonomously crawl behind each other on the daily commute.
Check out the video below to see the system in action.