SARTRE "road train" update

The folks at the SARTRE road train project have issued an update one year into their 3 year project. This is an EU-initiated project to build convoy technology, where a professional lead driver in a truck or bus is followed by a convoy of closely packed cars which automatically follow based on radio communications (and other signals) with the lead. They have released a new video on their progress from Volvo.

I have written before about the issues involved in this project and many of them remain. It’s the easiest way to get a robocar on the highway, but comes with a particularly high risk if it fails — and failure in the earliest stages of robocar projects is very likely.

In the video, some interesting elements include:

  • The building of a simulator to test driver attitudes and reactions. Generally quite positive, in that people are happy to trust the driving to the system and the lead driver. This will change a bit in a real car, since a simulator can only do so much.
  • The imagine people eating, drinking, listening to music and reading while in the convoys, but they don’t talk about the elephant in the car: sleeping. People doing anything else can quickly take the controls in a problem, but sleepers may not. And there’s also that act that we metaphorically call “sleeping together.”
  • Their simulations depict cars leaving the convoy from the middle. However, in this situation it seems you can’t give them too much brake-accelerator control for the difficult task of changing lanes when you are just a few feet from the cars in front and back of you. You must maintain the speed of the train until you have fully left its lane, but that means you can’t do the usual task of changing speed as you enter your new lane. Exit from the trains will need some work. (There are suggestions in the comments that make sense.)
  • They expect to have to make legal changes to allow this. However, since it’s an EU initiated project, they have a leg-up on that. This might pave the way for more robocar-friendly laws in Europe.
  • While they plan to do a live test by 2012, they are much more cautious on predicting when the trains might be common on the roads.
  • They do speculate if a simple robocar function for “stop and go” traffic, which is able to follow the car in front of you at lower speeds, might come first. Indeed, this is pretty easy, and not much more than a smarter version of existing auto-follow cruise control with steering and lane-following added.
  • Their main pitch is environmental, as drafting should save decent fuel. However, I think most people will be interested in the time saving, and I’ll be interested in how the public accepts it.

Exiting wouldn't be that hard...

...if you could indicate that you wanted to exit. The system would just increase the distance in front of and behind your car so you had space to maneuver. Anyway, wouldn't most exits be to the right (or left in UK influenced countries)?

I am curious what the incentive is for the truck drivers though. Also since drafting isn't free -- they'll experience reduced milage.

Cost of drafting

Actually, I think with larger vehicles, being drafted has negative cost, ie. both vehicles save fuel.

Yes, you could make algorithms to make it easier to leave. People would really have to turn on their signals in advance, though. The exit might be to the right, or some people might prefer the left. I don’t think the train can travel in the right lane the way they show in their simulations. Particularly a long train would mess with people trying to merge onto the highway. If they happened to pick the wrong time, they would have to stop, and thus lose all their merge momentum. Metering lights could possibly help here.

It does otherwise make sense for the train to go a little slower. In other words, at the speed limit, which is usually much slower than regular traffic. Legally it might have to. That allows people to come up upon the train and decide to join it. As a counter to this, some might prefer the train be able to go in the carpool lane, nice and fast, as it has many of the benefits of a carpool — saved fuel and space on the road — and carpools won’t want to join the train if it has to go in lanes jammed by traffic. But the carpool lane is the fast lane and it should go faster than other traffic at all times, or move over.

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