Tony O'Kane | Oct 23, 2009

VOLVO AND DRIVETRAIN SPECIALIST RICARDO have joined forces with three other European companies to develop and test a working system for self-driving, autonomous cars, capable of following each other down a highway without human intervention.

The SARTRE project, part-funded by the European Comission, stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment.

Rather than relying on road-based infrastructure to guide each car safely without driver input, the SATRE system will instead have an electronically-linked convoy of cars following a single human-driven vehicle.

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Wireless car-to-car communication will allow the following cars to safely trail the lead vehicle at the same speed and at a close distance, while cars entering or exiting the freeway can join or split from the convoy at will. When the lead car exits, the next vehicle in line takes over leading the rest of the pack.

The primary benefit of SARTRE's project is safety, with the self-driving cars virtually crash-proof (provided the lead car doesn't crash, of course).

Reducing driver fatigue is also another potential benefit, and makes the technology an attractive proposition for long-distance haulage operators.

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Fuel consumption is also expected to be reduced by the SATRE technology, as the small gap between each following car enables them to slipstream the car in front and reduce aerodynamic drag. SARTRE claims fuel economy could improve by as much as 20 percent.

Testing is slated to begin on closed tracks from 2011 onwards, but applications for production cars are still some way off.

The SARTRE project is optimistic that its purely vehicle-based technology will be quicker to introduce than road infrastructure-based systems, but don't expect to see a fully-functioning road train system running before the latter part of next decade.

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