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SARTRE: Autonomous car platoons

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The European project SARTRE focuses on an alternative to single, completely autonomous vehicles such as those developed at Google by Sebastian Thrun or those of the autonomous taxi developed by the AutoNOMOS Project or by the MadeInGermany project, both by Raúl Rojas. Instead, SARTRE develops road trains - convoys of vehicles that autonomously follow a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver.

Such vehicle platoons function much like an improved version of adaptive cruise control, matching a car's movements to the distance, speed, and the direction of the car in front. Once in a platoon, this allows drivers to relax and do other things like reading or even taking a nap while the platoon drives toward its long distance destination.

SARTRE has now shown what this could look like in a real-world demonstration of a single autonomous car following a human-driven test vehicle in highway conditions (video above).

"We are very pleased to see that the various systems work so well together already the first time,” says Erik Coelingh, engineering specialist at Volvo Cars. “After all, the systems come from seven SARTRE-member companies in four countries. The winter weather provided some extra testing of cameras and communication equipment.”

The project participants hope that platooning will not only improve road safety, but also drastically reduce fuel consumption, cutting it by up to 20%, with a similar cut in emissions. In addition, platooning is expected to reduce traffic congestion, because it will allow cars to travel at highway speeds with only a few meters between them.

The researchers and their industrial partners expect the technology to be ready for production in a few years. The biggest remaining hurdles are no longer technological, but legal and social: Not sure I'd feel safe taking my hands off the wheel and foot off the brakes when going 130km/h and driving only 5 meters behind a truck.

For more background information on AutoNOMOS, MadeInGermany, ARGO and the Vislab Intercontinental Vehicle Challenge also have a look at a recent episode on Autonomous Vehicles by the Robots Podcast.

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