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Road trains seem like best hope for our highways

Tired of driving? Then join a road train. You can fiddle with your smart phone, read the newspaper, have your lunch and save up to 20 per cent on fuel. At least that's the promise.

There's a project going on in Europe now call SARTRE. It's not J-P the existentialist – it stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment. These road trains aren't the ones that have a tractor pulling two or three trailers instead of one. This kind of road train strings a bunch of cars together and is also known as platooning. The idea is that a lead car, driven by a professional driver who is not texting, sets the pace and all the electronic goodies that are in most new cars, like radar, sonar and cameras, keeps the cars tightly spaced and running together.

We've seen a few experimental cars that drive themselves but it is unlikely that governments and liability lawyers will allow them on the highways and byways anytime soon. However if you have a car with adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind spot warning, cross traffic warning and the rest, you've got a car that is almost road-train-ready now.

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The SARTRE project is running mini-road trains in Europe. The point is to show that a road train can operate safely on public highways without changes to the road and roadside infrastructure. Experiments have been done on "electronic highways" where they tear up the road and install electronic sensors and guide-posts and so on but they are tremendously expensive. The new idea for road trains is to use the stuff already built into cars.

The SARTRE tests have run vehicles at 85 km/h with the gap between each vehicle set at six meters. They are trying to demonstrate how the use of platoons can lead to environmental, safety and congestion improvements. On the environmental side they believe that driving in a platoon can cut your fuel burn by up to 20 per cent. They'll try to pack the vehicles in tighter together (bumper-to-bumper?) to maximize the drafting advantages (minimize air resistance) of tight spacing.

As to safety question – ask any automotive engineer and they'll tell you computers can drive a car better that you can if we would only allow it. In terms of congestion improvements it's obvious. Packing more vehicles into tighter spaces is the way to maximize the capacity of highway systems.

There are still lots of problems to be worked out but they seem far from insurmountable. For instance, if you sign on to the road train to Montreal, can you get off before Montreal? Or can you join it as it passes Oshawa? Cars with a touch of artificial intelligence could automatically join and leave platoons but we don't have that yet. In addition these tests have been run mostly in Spain so far where they lack blizzards, ice and moose. But a sunny, summer day on the 400 or 401 would seem to be no problem.

Automated highway systems are yesterday's bagels. They tried it near San Diego along I15 in 1997 and made some technical progress but the economics pointed directly toward autonomous intelligent vehicles rather than building specialized infrastructure. If you're using adaptive cruise control in your car now you know that you almost never have to touch the brakes or the gas. The lane departure and blind spot warning can also pull you back into the proper lane. Cross traffic warning can slam on the brakes before you back into someone. All this stuff is easily tweaked for road trains.

I'll keep an eye on how the SARTRE project works out and report back. They'll have to up the speed from 85 km/h or I'm sure most people would skip it, stick to the left lane and blow right past. I'd also like to see them change the name. Call it the Soul Train not the Road Train. Play the music and join in.

mvaughan@globeandmail.com

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