Cars That Drive Themselves and Consume Less Fuel

Those unfortunate souls who make long commutes on highways have likely longed to crack open a book or watch a movie instead of dealing with traffic. In a few years, that just might be possible—legally and safely, that is. The EU’s Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) is working to wirelessly link six to eight cars traveling in the same direction in “road trains” led by a professionally driven vehicle.

Here’s how it would work: Drivers would enter their destination into an in-car system. They’d then pull up to the rear of the ‘train’ and the lead vehicle would wirelessly take over control, using a GPS-technology to position the car in the queue. When a driver wanted to exit, she’d take over control of her vehicle, and the rest of those in the queue would automatically shift to fill the gap (see the video above).

The scheme could increase fuel efficiency by up to 20 percent, thus reducing CO2 emissions, estimates Ricardo UK, a technology company that is leading the project. The other partners are Germany’s IKA, SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology of Sweden, and Idiada and Robotiker-Tecnalia of Spain.

Tecnalia, for instance, is looking at human behavior related to road trains and analyzing potential risks, Basque Research reports.

Because the system will be built into cars, it won’t require additional infrastructure. That could give it an edge over other driverless projects, like the one tested in the U.S. in 1997. That effort relied on guidance magnets to help control the vehicles. A lot of magnets: Nearly 93,000 were installed in on I-15 near San Diego. Because building such “smart roads” throughout the country would be too costly and intensive, the project was abandoned.

The first SARTRE test cars will roll on test tracks in Spain as early as 2011. The 19 million euro project will run through 2012.

Even if SARTRE succeeds, the question remains as to whether drivers will want to participate. Many drivers might find fewer traffic jams and accidents, and saving money at the pump (because of reduced drag from the proximity of vehicles in the train) attractive enough to give it a try.

SARTRE could give a whole new meaning to “tailgating.”

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