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Are Wireless Road Trains the Cure for Traffic Congestion?

Road Trains

The concept of road trains—up to eight vehicles zooming down the road together—has long been considered a faster, safer, and greener way of traveling long distances by car. And now, thanks to a European Union-financed project, the idea could be coming to a freeway near you (that is, if you live on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean).

Here's how a road train works: the convoy is controlled by a lead vehicle with a professional driver at the helm—one day, this is where all Formula 1 retirees will end up. The other cars communicate with the leader to join and leave the train when they want, thanks to wireless sensors and their existing sat nav systems. Once on the convoy, the drivers behind the leader are able to take their hands off the wheel to read a book, watch TV, or check company sales figures and decide which poor minion is for the chop this month.

Rather than overhauling the continent's roads, engineers on the Sartre project (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) are looking to use off-the-shelf components to modify the vehicles themselves, as it will be a good deal cheaper. "Each of the vehicles will have its own control and software monitoring system," says Tom Robinson, project co-ordinator at engineering firm Ricardo. "There may well be a platoon sensor envelope that collates information and presents it to the lead vehicle so it can understand what is happening around all the vehicles." He also suggested that, one day, "drivers" who join a road train may end up paying for the privilege.

The Sartre project will run for three years, with trials on test tracks in the U.K., Sweden, and Spain. However, only the Spanish will be testing on public roads—which could be risky, given the propensity my Iberian brothers have at cutting up drivers on their roads.

While everyone accepts that technology can only be a good thing for an increasingly mobile society, there are some aspects of it that make me uneasy. The road train seems like a great idea, cutting fuel consumption by 20%, and shortening journey times (although, on the U.K.'s over-congested highways, I will believe that when I see it). But there are some worrisome aspects of mixing transport and technology, like creating a generation of more doltish drivers who become dependent on a lead driver. And if you're in control of a potentially lethal mixture of metal, plastic*, rubber, and highly-combustible fuel, it's worth learning to drive the hard way.

*Never underestimate the importance of a cup holder, my friend—on both the driver and passenger's side, natch.

[BBC News] Image Via DVICE