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Car Commuting Without Driving: Computerized Convoy Hits The Road

Semi-autonomous driving could make your commute to work a pleasure instead of pain. Road trains have been proposed for decades as a safe eco-solution for driving cars on freeways. Now, finally, a two-car test is hitting the streets in Europe this month.

The "Safe Road Trains for the Environment" (SARTRE) system puts advanced automation and sensing technology into typical cars, giving them the ability to join a convoy that moves in sync down a freeway with only the lead vehicle needing the control of a human driver.

There's a plethora of gizmos needed to make this safe: sensors to ensure each car in the train maintains its position relative to the one in front, systems that allow individual drivers to seize control of their own car without upsetting the other cars, brake sensors, acceleration sensors, and so on.

But the economic cost of these automatic systems (which could easily be built into future production cars as they're not too far advanced from existing ABS and parking sensors and the like) are easily off-set by the benefits of driving in convoys. You get faster average journey times, reduced chances of accidents (as the system can be way better at avoiding dangerous traffic situations than a human is), and faster traffic on the road as a whole.

Best of all, while you're in a convoy, you don't actually have to drive. This could add to business productivity, or lead to reduced stress levels in commuters.

SARTRE relies on one professional driver in a truck or van to lead the train, and includes sensors to check this person's alertness, blood-alcohol level, and so on. SARTRE is running a two-car test this month, then a five-car test in 2011, with no particular target date for commercialization.

We do wonder whether the SARTRE team ought to get together with the Google autonomous driving team. Replace that lead truck in SARTRE with a self-driving Google car, and you've got an even more interesting concept in transportation.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.