EU’s Great Big Convoy: Wireless Road Trains Coming Soon

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Do you ever wish you could sit back and read the morning paper on your way to work instead of driving your car and paying attention to the road? If you live in Europe, that could soon be a very real possibility for you. The EU-funded SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project will soon roll onto European motorways, giving drivers a chance to relinquish control of their vehicles for part of their commute.

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The project, aimed at commuters facing long drives every day, involves a “lead vehicle,” piloted by a professional driver, that controls a group of cars behind it. When a car sees a road train that it wants to join (indicated by GPS/sat-nav), the driver signals to the lead vehicle of the train. The lead driver then simply brings the car into the train and it’s pulled up close to the last car in line. Individual drivers will be free to watch TV, read the newspaper or catch up on emails while their car is in the road train.

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When the road train nears each car’s destination, individual drivers signal to the lead vehicle that they want to leave the train. The lead driver safely releases the car, then the individual driver regains control and can drive the rest of the way. This commuting method could cut fuel consumption up to 20% for each individual car, as well as making the morning and evening commute safer and quicker.

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It sounds like a pretty cool futuristic idea, but how does it actually work? Ideally, there would be sensors and controls built into the motorways themselves, but officials on the project know that would be impossibly expensive. Instead, each vehicle would have its own sensor to allow it to be controlled by the road trains. Presumably, each driver would pay to have the device installed in his or her own car.

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The SARTRE program will run for three years, including road trials near the end of the program. There are plenty of kinks to work out in that time, such as safety and behavioral issues, but coordinators are optimistic that this could be the way to cut down on congestion and accidents on European highways.

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See more in Mass Transit or under Transportation. December, 2009.