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30 January, 2012 - 00:26 By Tony Quested

Cambridge-inspired ‘road train’ concept on track

Ricardo UK Limited’s technical centre in Cambridge is at the heart of the platooning initiative

A Cambridge-inspired ‘road train’ concept requiring only the lead driver in a convoy of vehicles to take the wheel while following drivers chill out has successfully completed the first test demonstrations.

The test fleet – known as a multiple vehicle platoon – included a lead truck followed by three cars driven entirely autonomously at speeds of up to 90 km/h – with no more than six metres gap between the vehicles.

Ricardo UK Limited’s technical centre in Cambridge is at the heart of the platooning initiative and believes it will revolutionise motoring on the world’s major highways.

Highly advanced sensors and actuators in the lead vehicle – piloted by a professional driver – regulate a safe distance for the following cars.

When drivers in the convoy want to go solo they merely resume physical control of their own vehicle, exit the platoon and the remaining cars are closed up automatically.

The main advantage of road trains is that the car driver has time over to do other things. Road trains promote safer transport since the vehicle platoons are led by a professional driver in e.g. a truck and inter-vehicle reaction response times are much quicker.

Environmental impact is reduced since the cars follow close behind each other and benefit from the lower air drag. The energy saving is expected to be in the region of up to 20 per cent. Road capacity will also be able to be utilised more efficiently.

The initiative is literally being driven by the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) consortium involving seven European partners, including Ricardo.

Recognising that the challenge of implementing road train technology on highways is not solely a technical matter, SARTRE also includes a major study to identify what infrastructure changes will be needed for vehicle platooning to become a reality.

A number of stakeholder discussions will therefore be held. The participants in the first discussion included technical experts, politicians, legislators and traffic safety researchers.

A number of non-technical challenges for road trains have been discussed: Key future requirements identified were the need to agree a common terminology for platooning, such as criteria for defining when a vehicle becomes fully, as opposed to partially or even highly automated, and the need to address multiple and varied national regulatory law or to harmonise regulatory law.

“The successful completion of the first multiple vehicle tests of the SARTRE system is a significant achievement,” said SARTRE project director, Tom Robinson of Ricardo UK.

“This has allowed us to demonstrate the operation of SARTRE road train technology to key industry experts and to capture their responses, all of which were very encouraging.

“The demonstration system provides us with a solid foundation for further consideration of the challenges of bringing road trains to reality.”

A challenge has been to develop reliable communication between the vehicles in the platoon. Vehicle to vehicle communication is essential to ensure safety at high speeds and short vehicle spacing.

The aim is for the entire road train to be completed in autumn 2012. By then the consortium will have four vehicles after one lead vehicle driving at 90 km/h, according to Erik Coelingh, technical project manager at the Volvo Car Corporation – a key SARTRE consortium member.

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