Up until recently, protecting the environment and improving fuel economy didn’t necessarily rank high on the automotive industry’s to-do list, leaving national and governmental agencies to legislate on the matter and encourage new and effective ways to deal with issues pertaining to fuel economy and the environment. The good news is automakers seem to be slowly shaping up, and the even better news is some truly unique solutions to our energy problems are starting to bloom. One of the more innovative programs to come from a government-funded initiative is the European Union’s Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project, which recently underwent its first public motorway test in Spain.
Not familiar with Project Sartre? Then, we’ll happily you bring you up to speed.
The project is a collective effort funded by the European Commission, and led by British company Ricardo which develops engines, transmissions, and vehicles systems among other things. Chief among the consortium’s participants is Swedish auto manufacturer Volvo.
Utilizing Volvo’s own automobiles, the project works by stringing together a group of cars in order to form a road train. This train (or caravan if you prefer) allows a group of cars to follow one another along any road autonomously. Guided by a lead truck driven by a professional driver, the group of autonomous autos can communicate wirelessly via advanced software, cameras, laser sensors, radar, and GPS-based technology in order to mimic the lead truck’s driving behavior. The drivers turn, the following cars turn. The driver slows down, the following cars slow down. All while maintaining appropriate distance and speed.
While up to eight vehicles can be used, Volvo recently tested out just three: a S60, V60, and a XC30. Each car was driven autonomously following a truck for 124 miles at a distance of 20 feet, and traveling at about 53 miles per hour on the roads outside of Barcelona.
Other than looking rather impressive, what’s the point? Well, not only is autonomous driving insanely awesome – representing the real-life fulfillment of one of our most beloved science fiction technologies — in this scenario it also happens to be incredibly fuel efficient thanks to the road train’s persistent drag reduction while along its route. Early estimates indicate as much as 20 percent more efficient when it comes to reducing fuel costs, something Volvo is very keen to explore further after completing its recent event which it deemed “highly successful.”
Okay, so it’s cool, and it might help save the earth, but are there any “real” benefits? Sure, apart from freeing drivers up during longer hauls and added fuel economy, it turns out systems like Sartre also have the potential to implement an added element of safety. Longer road trips generally equate to prolonged spells on the open road where tiredness and lack of awareness can culminate into reckless and dangerous driving. In contrast, an autonomously driven caravan would eliminate all of that: no getting lost; no getting tired; and best of all your travels would be undertaken in groups and monitored via the lead driver and not the robot pictured above.
With Volvo having just completed yet another successful test run (it’s been testing Sartre since 2009), we’re excited to move away from the perceived benefits and mere estimates to more solid, on the ground, concrete figures in the not-so-distant-future. As is the case with other autonomous driving programs like Google’s and General Motor’s EN-V concept, it’s going to be some time before we see systems like Sartre put into mainstream practice or use. But until then, most of us will have to be content with dreaming of the future instead of driving it (or not driving it, as the case may be).