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Volvo's Vehicle Trains Let Drivers Sleep at the Wheel [VIDEO]

Volvo Sartre autonomous car

We love autonomous cars here at Fast Company—we've written about them extensively and even taken the occasional spin. Now, Volvo's autonomous vehicle platooning technology is finally ready to emerge from the lab and into the streets.

This week, Volvo and SARTRE (the EU-financed Safe Road Trains for the Environment program) demonstrated vehicle platooning, which consists of a convoy of "slave" vehicles led by a professional driver in a lead vehicle, at the Volvo Proving Ground near Gothenberg, Sweden. Each slave vehicle in the convoy keeps track of distance, speed and direction and adjusts to stay close—but not too close—to the car directly ahead. The vehicles can leave the platoon at will, but they are completely automated while part of the group. According to Volvo, the platoons are smooth enough that drivers could drink coffee and read the morning paper without worrying about interruption.

Besides freeing up time for drivers, what's the point? Volvo explains:

If successful, the benefits from SARTRE are expected to be significant. The estimated fuel consumption saving for high speed highway operation of road trains is in the region of 20% depending on vehicle spacing and geometry. Safety benefits will arise from the reduction of accidents caused by driver action and driver fatigue. The utilization of existing road capacity will also be increased with a potential consequential reduction in journey times. For users of the technology, the practical attractions of a smoother, more predicable and lower cost journey which offers the opportunity of additional free time will be considerable.

The technology is already so advanced that Volvo estimates it could be integrated into new cars just a few years down the line. In reality, platooning will probably take much longer to go public—state and country laws will have to be adjusted to accommodate for them, and public acceptance will likely be questionable at best.

But like it or not, autonomous cars are coming—especially now that Google is working on self-driving cars of its own.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.