All Aboard the Robotic Road Train

Semiautonomous cars will play follow the leader, giving drivers a rest and saving fuel

10 min read
Illustration of cars
Illustration: Tavis Coburn

In car commercials, every road is clear and curvy, every vista is framed by mountains and the sea, and every driver is relaxed and in the moment. In real life, though, driving is often as much a pain as it is a pleasure—a car, once a symbol of independence, is now perhaps the last place where you can’t use your smartphone. Even when the roads aren’t clogged, you must be constantly alert because, let’s face it—too many other drivers are inattentive or downright maniacal (characteristics that never apply to you, of course!). Public transportation has its own drawbacks: Buses and trains don’t start at your home and don’t end at your destination, nor do they leave just when you’d like or even guarantee you a seat.

To get the best of both worlds, we could teach our cars to work together, as closely grouped cyclists do in a peloton. The lead car could be entrusted to a professional driver to whom the other drivers would of course each pay a small fee; all the other cars would follow it automatically. The cars would all use networked communications coupled with the optical or electromagnetic sensors already installed in some luxury cars to avoid head-on collision, stay in the proper lane, and brake in case of emergency. These systems have been developed at great expense to provide active safety, as distinguished from the passive kind afforded by seat belts. But this investment, having been made, can now be exploited for other things—like allowing you to relax and read the paper. If only we’d let them.

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3 min read
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iStock

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1 min read

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