It's been awhile since we saw Volvo's SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project, which was last running out of harm's way on a test track near Gothenburg. Volvo has just taken a big step forward in fostering confidence by conducting its road train on public asphalt. The 124-mile Spanish test both proved that the cars could stay driverless without posing a threat and upped the ante for what the cars could do: the lead truck, an S60, a V60 and an XC60 all moved along at a brisk 53MPH with a tighter gap between vehicles than there was in the original test, at just 20 feet. SARTRE was so successful in the public run that Volvo is now focusing on far less contentious issues -- like making sure fuel use drops by the promised 20 percent. There's still the looming question of making a viable business model, though Volvo's dream if realized will make sure no driverless car has to go solo.
SARTRE road train premiere on public roads
For the first time ever a road train comprising a Volvo XC60, a Volvo V60 and a Volvo S60 plus one truck automatically driving in convoy behind a lead vehicle has operated on a public motorway among other road users. The historic test in Spain was highly successful.
Vehicle platoon tests in the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project - a joint venture between Ricardo UK Ltd, Applus+ Idiada, Tecnalia Research & Innovation, Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge Aachen (IKA), SP Technical Research Institute, Volvo Technology and Volvo Car Corporation - are making progress. One major step forward was taken last week on a motorway outside Barcelona - the first-ever test drive of a road train among other road users.
"We covered 200 kilometres in one day and the test turned out well. We're really delighted," says Linda Wahlström, project manager for the SARTRE project at Volvo Car Corporation.
A road train consists of a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver followed by a number of vehicles. Building on Volvo Car Corporation's and Volvo Technology's already existing safety systems - including features such as cameras, radar and laser sensors - the vehicles monitor the lead vehicle and also other vehicles in their immediate vicinity. By adding in wireless communication, the vehicles in the platoon "mimic" the lead vehicle using Ricardo autonomous control - accelerating, braking and turning in exactly the same way as the leader.
Improved driver environment - among much else
The project aims to deliver improved comfort for drivers, who can now spend their time doing other things while driving. They can work on their laptops, read a book or sit back and enjoy a relaxed lunch.
Naturally the project also aims to improve traffic safety, reduce environmental impact and - thanks to smooth speed control - cut the risk of traffic tailbacks.
One lead vehicle and four trailing vehicles - consisting of a Volvo S60, a Volvo V60 and a Volvo XC60 plus a truck - made up the historic road train in Spain.
"Driving among other road-users is a great milestone in our project. It was truly thrilling," says Linda Wahlström. The vehicles drove at 85 kilometres an hour. The gap between each vehicle was just six metres. "During our trials on the test circuit we tried out gaps from five to fifteen metres," relates Linda Wahlström.
Sitting in a car just six metres behind another one while travelling at 85 km/h and relying totally on the technology may feel a bit scary. But the experiences gained so far indicate that people acclimatise very quickly.
The three-year SARTRE project has been under way since 2009. All told, the vehicles in the project have covered about 10,000 kilometres. After the test on the public roads in Spain, the project is now entering a new phase with the focus on analysis of fuel consumption.
"We've learnt a whole lot during this period. People think that autonomous driving is science fiction, but the fact is that the technology is already here. From the purely conceptual viewpoint, it works fine and road train will be around in one form or another in the future," says Linda Wahlström.
"We've focused really hard on changing as little as possible in existing systems. Everything should function without any infrastructure changes to the roads or expensive additional components in the cars. Apart from the software developed as part of the project, it is really only the wireless network installed between the cars that set them apart from other cars available in showrooms today."
NOTES TO EDITORS
About the SARTRE project:
The SARTRE project stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment. Part-funded by the European Commission under the Framework 7 programme, SARTRE is led by Ricardo UK Ltd and comprises collaboration between the following additional participating companies: Idiada and Tecnalia Research & Innovation of Spain, Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge Aachen (IKA) of Germany and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology of Sweden.
SARTRE aims to encourage a step change in personal transport usage through the development of safe environmental road trains (platoons). Systems are being developed in prototype form that will facilitate the safe adoption of road trains on un-modified public highways with full interaction with non-platoon vehicles. The project is addressing the three cornerstone transportation issues of environment, safety and congestion while at the same time encouraging driver acceptance through the prospect of increased "driver comfort". The objectives of SARTRE may be summarised as:
1. To define a set of acceptable platooning strategies that will allow road trains to operate on public highways without changes to the road and roadside infrastructure.
2. To enhance, develop and integrate technologies for a prototype platooning system such that the defined strategies can be assessed under real world scenarios.
3. To demonstrate how the use of platoons can lead to environmental, safety and congestion improvements.
4. To illustrate how a new business model can be used to encourage the use of platoons with benefits to bothlead vehicle operators and to platoon subscribers.
If successful, the benefits from SARTRE are expected to be significant. The estimated fuel consumption saving for high speed highway operation of road trains is in the region of 20 percent depending on vehicle spacing and geometry. Safety benefits will arise from the reduction of accidents caused by driver action and driver fatigue. The utilization of existing road capacity will also be increased with a potential consequential reduction in journey times. For users of the technology, the practical attractions of a smoother, more predicable and lower cost journey which offers the opportunity of additional free time will be considerable. The SARTRE project formally started in September 2009 and will run for a total of three years. http://www.sartre-project.eu/