The SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project that first hit the road in 2011 before conducting its first public road test earlier this year has now been completed. As well as finding that semi-autonomous “follow the leader” road train technology is mature enough for practical applications in the near future, the participating partners in the project have concluded that it could be integrated on conventional highways and operate in a mixed environment with existing road users.

The SARTRE project is a sort of halfway point between conventional vehicles and autonomous vehicles. Instead of taking the human factor out of the equation altogether, similarly equipped vehicles communicate with each other to form road trains behind a lead vehicle operated by a professional driver.

Road tests saw a manually driven lead truck followed by one truck and three Volvo cars, a S60V60 and XC60, which were driven autonomously at speeds of up to 90 km/h (56 mph), with distances between the vehicles often no greater than four meters (13 ft).

“The basic principle is that the following vehicles repeat the motion of the lead vehicle,” says Erik Coelingh, Product Attribute Manager, Driver Assistance at Volvo Car Corporation. “To achieve this we have extended the camera, radar and laser technology used in present safety and support systems such as Adaptive Cruise Control, City Safety, Lane Keeping Aid, Blind Sport Information System and Park Assist Pilot.”

Volvo says that it could have a system capable of operating on conventional highways with mixed traffic within ten years and that the main obstacles are legislative. But if local and national governments can be convinced to find a way to accommodate autonomous cars, the day when a cross-country road trip becomes an excuse to catch up on some reading may not be that far off.

“The road train is the best of two worlds,” added Coelingh. “You can enjoy all the multi-tasking possibilities of public transportation behind the wheel of your own car.”

Part-funded by the European Commission, SARTRE is a joint venture of seven European partners including Ricardo UK Ltd, Applus Idiada, Robotiker, Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge Aachen (IKA), SP Technical Research Institute, Volvo Technology and Volvo Car Corporation. Volvo is the only car manufacturer in the project.

The SARTRE project’s road train technology is demonstrated in the video below.

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