Can car 'platoons' lower emissions?


-- Spending hours on end stuck behind a lorry would send most sane drivers completely round the bend.

But the man behind the wheel of the car in this picture is pretty relaxed, sipping coffee from one hand and thumbing through his newspaper with the other.

That's because new technology being developed by European researchers is allowing the driver of the lorry in front to control the speed and direction of his car.

The research is part of the European Union-backed SARTRE project (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) and it's the first time that "vehicle platooning" technology has been demonstrated outside of a simulator.

The idea is to create a new way of traveling on motorways where several cars move in convoy or a "platoon" with a lead vehicle -- manned by a professional driver -- in control.

Tom Robinson, from Ricardo UK, an engineering company that is leading the project said in a statement: "This is a major milestone for this important European research program. With the combined skills of its participating companies, SARTRE is making tangible progress towards the realization of safe and effective road train technology."

Computers fitted to each car in the "platoon" measure and control the distance and speed between one another constantly. The aim is to make driving on motorways safer and more economical.

SARTRE researchers say that around 80% of accidents on the road are due to human error. So using professional lead drivers to take the strain on long journeys could, they say, see road accidents fall.

They also predict fuel efficiency to improve by as much as 20% if "vehicle platooning" takes off, with obvious knock-on benefits for the environment.

Furthermore, researchers say cars driving close together in platoons might also relieve congestion as well as allowing drivers to take a break from the wheel and catch up on some work or have something to eat.

The SARTRE project is drawing on the technical expertise of several companies including the technical division of Swedish auto-maker Volvo, whose proving ground outside Gothenburg was used for the first non-simulated tests.

"We are very pleased to see that the various systems work so well together already the first time," Erik Coelingh, an engineer from Volvo Cars said.

John Franklin from UK breakdown recovery service, the RAC says the concept is interesting, but noted that the technology will have to be foolproof.

"An automated system is likely to make it safer as it takes away driver error but it would have to be 100% reliable. This kind of system would also require a complete change in motoring culture for drivers to hand over control," Franklin said.

Started less than 18 months ago, SARTRE clearly has some way to go before creating a system fit for public trials on public roads, but researchers remain confident that these platoons could be helping highway safety in around 10 years.