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Robot car trains from the future!

By Claes Bell ·
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Posted: 7 am ET

If you've ever wished you could be sleeping or watching a movie instead of driving your car, Volvo may one day have a new product for you: the first ever operational road train.

CNET's Car Tech blog has a breakdown of how the technology would work:

Volvo has successfully demonstrated a vehicle road-train system that allows cars to drive themselves in convoy on the motorway.

The demonstration, part of an EU-financed Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE--PDF link) project, proved that drivers in a Volvo "platoon" can relinquish control to the car, enjoying a spot of coffee, surfing the Internet, or even having a snooze while they're ferried to their destination.

This guy's face pretty much sums up how I feel about Volvo's road train prototype

This guy is understandably excited about reading his newspaper while the road train handles the driving

SARTRE platoons are guided by a lead vehicle, which is driven by a professional driver. This car is followed by a succession of other, computer-controlled cars that are electronically tethered in the convoy. Each vehicle in the platoon measures the distance, speed, and direction of the vehicle directly in front, adjusting its movements to stay in formation.

I'm excited about this technology for a couple of reasons. First off, it has the potential to reduce fuel consumption by a significant amount -- the designers have a target of 20 percent.

Second, if done right, it could yield significant increases in quality of life for heavy commuters. I used to have a pretty lengthy commute in my teaching days, which would take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on traffic, and what always frustrated me about it was the time I wasted sitting there, staring at the car in front of me with my foot on the gas, waiting so I could inch forward along with it.

That said, some will find the idea of a car driving without a driver at the controls a little unsettling, although as I've said on this blog before, driving in South Florida makes you believe computer-driven cars couldn't be much worse than the human-driven variety. The systems' designers, though, claim the technology has the potential to reduce fatalities by 10 percent, and extensive safety testing is planned before the system ever reaches real-life roads.

Overall, the system has the potential to make transportation in the U.S. a whole lot more productive and fun. I enjoy driving sometimes, especially on the curvier roads outside Florida, but it would be nice to have the option to just veg out instead.

What do you think? Would you join a road train, or does the idea of giving up control of your car freak you out?

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Claes Bell
February 07, 2011 at 4:25 pm

That's a good question, and not one I feel comfortable answering. Look for a future article on robot jurisprudence to answer this and the flood of similar questions I have been getting lately.

February 07, 2011 at 4:24 pm

If my robot receives a speeding ticket, will I have to pay it; even though I have no control over the vehicle? Has any legal precedence been set for this possible situation? I'm not worried yet--- I just want to plan ahead. (no crash-test dummy here)

Claes Bell
February 07, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I hate it when that happens.

February 07, 2011 at 4:12 pm

My robot drives too fast.

Claes Bell
January 24, 2011 at 11:31 am

Right there with you, Shantique!

January 24, 2011 at 11:30 am

I would give right arm...and probably my left, to have this ability! This could have a sginificant imapct on traffic. Removing the human error is a big help. I'm sure that this will lead to little single pods for commuters allowing much more space on the roads and probably allowing for several more lanes! GENIUS...