MUNICH, Germany Autonomous driving cars is a solved problem projects such as the DARPA Grand and Urban Challenges have shown proof. A European research project targets beyond: It will enable cars to organize themselves in "trains", driving largely autonomously behind a lead vehicle on motorways.
SARTE (Safe Road Trains for Environment) is the title of a research project led by British automotive technology provider Ricardo plc. In order to improve the traffic flow on highly utilized roads, reduce commuting times, avoid traffic stalls and to reduce the number of accidents, the vehicles will organize themselves to electronically coupled "trains" of cars driving in the same direction and, of course, at the same speed. After electronic assistants have taken over control of the vehicle, the drivers could relax, read, or chat. A welcome side effect would be the reduction of pollutant emissions since the vehicles would drive along at even speed. Experts believe the fuel consumption thus could be reduced by up to 20 percent.
Most of the components required are available not only in prototypes such as the electronic controls used at the known DARPA events but in volume production for today's cars. Systems such as traction control, brake assistants and lane departure warning systems are in place in many cars. Passing assistants which largely take over the control over the car for a limited time are currently tested by major OEMs.
The SARTE context makes use of many of these available building blocks. The researchers intend to add another element: A lead vehicle will take over the control over the following six to eight cars. This vehicle could be a bus or a taxi. In any case, only vehicles qualified in a certain way will be able to take the lead role. As soon as an individual driver approaches his destination he will be able to manually exit the platoon while the remaining vehicles close the gap and continue until the convoy splits up.
Participating in the project designed to last for three years are Volvo Car Corp. and its commercial vehicles subsidiary Volvo Technology Corp. From the automotive supplier industry, Spanish IDIADA has joined the consortium. Research institutes Robotiker-Tecnalia (Spain), the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and the Institut fuer Kraftfahrzeugtechnik of the RWTH Aachen university also have joined the project funded in part by the European Commission within its Framework 7 program.
First tests of the concept can be expected by 2011. Vehicles participating will be equipped with navigation system and a wireless communication unit enabling it to exchange signals with the lead vehicles and, of course with the set of drivers' assistant systems required to control speed, distance and direction.
Within ten years, the concept of cars driving autonomously in convoys could be reality on Europe's motorways, the consortium has announced.
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