Self Driving Cars: Progress is Happening

Wired’s new issue is all about self-driving cars, and tests are being conducted all over the world on autonomous and semi-autonomous driving systems. Via Wired Autopia, here is a short article about Volvo’s autonomous car testing.  You might be reading the paper and not worrying about the road on a commute in your near future…

Photo: Volvo Cars

A semi-autonomous, four-vehicle road train has been successfully demonstrated at Volvo’s test track in Hällered, Sweden, paving the way for on-road trials.

Road trains, also known as platoons, feature vehicles that can monitor and mimic the actions of the car or truck immediately ahead. In a road train, cars and trucks with the same destination are grouped together, and control is handed over to a “lead vehicle” that’s under the command of a professional driver.

That allows the semi-autonomous vehicles in the train to follow together very closely, reducing congestion and decreasing energy use by up to 20 percent. Indeed, in the trail shown above, cars were a mere 20 feet from each other and travelled at speeds up to 56 mph, all while the folks in the driver’s seats checked out their iPads. While we’ve had similar experiences commuting in Boston, in this case the cars were in control of the situation.

“I have to admit that in the beginning it feels really unusual, when you’re kind of prepared to take over at any moment,” said Erik Coelingh, technical project manager at Volvo, who enjoyed some relaxing time behind the wheel during a road train trial. “But it’s also amazing how quickly you get used to this.” It’s somewhat like carpooling, only you always get to choose the playlist.

Road trains are ideal for rush hour traffic, where cars and trucks follow similar patterns each day. “In those situations, it’s really great for the car to take over,”  Coelingh said. “I can spend the time any way I want.” Want to read a book, check your e-mail or eat breakfast? In a road train, you can — without endangering the lives of those around you. When your exit comes up, just drive away. The road train will continue without you.

The project is another step in the EU’s Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project, which formally started in September of 2009 with Volvo as its auto manufacturing partner. A few months back, the first single-car trials took place, but one car does not a train make. A successful run with three cars marks a major milestone, and Volvo engineers hope to add a fourth car by this fall.