Behold the road train: a convoy of cars, each synched up with a truck out in front, allowing each to lapse into autopilot. The idea is interesting. Commuters with road train technology would familiarize themselves with the timetables of lead vehicles like that truck, which would fly down the highway at a scheduled hour every day. Drivers could then latch on to the truck with a sensor, which would essentially tow the vehicle on down the road.
Evidently, there’s been a “hallmark” in this new “green” technology (it saves gas), which has spearheaded by something called the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE). SARTRE is funded in part by the European Commission, and in part by Volvo. And the project, apparently, has successfully completed its first test run.
Wired reports that SARTRE "scored a proof-of-concept and PR success last week by having four vehicles drive in a “road train” on a public highway near Barcelona, Spain, for over 200 kilometers at speeds up to 85 km/h.
“The road-train convoy consisted of a Volvo XC60, V60 and S60 that followed in the tracks of a truck that was the lead vehicle. Employing existing Volvo safety systems such as cameras, radar and laser sensors, the trailing vehicles monitored the lead vehicle and also kept an eye on any looky-loos in the immediate vicinity. Wireless communication allows the trailing vehicles to play follow-the-leader and mimic the truck’s acceleration, braking and turning – and drive within 6 meters behind one another while traveling at highway speeds.”
Neat, right? Well, maybe. This sort of concept inevitably and immediately wins headlines in the tech press. Autopilot cars, state-of-the-art-sensors, progressivism! But it’s also the kind of technology that’d we do well to consider the actual merits and applications of, before filing it along with “cool” ideas like Google’s dubious augmented reality glasses.
SARTRE promises to reduce emissions and traffic congestion, and to increase convenience for drivers. By synchronizing bits of the highway system, stabilizing acceleration, and minimizing wind resistance (and therefore gas consumption), this might actually happen to some extent.
What they’re really doing, of course, is making the highway more like a railway. A rider will study the timetable, hop on board, and turn the navigation duties over to someone else. Which does kind of sound nice—you could read, goof off, etc.
Except that it’s a horribly inefficient way to create a relaxing commute. They’ve created a ridiculous three-car train to ferry, tops, four or five passengers around in. If they wanted to make actual environmental progress, SARTRE would just buy people rail tickets. Instead, they’re incentivizing emissions-heavy personal pod travel. Which brings us to another issue—will anyone even want this technology? Where’s the demand? People drive instead of taking trains because they like the autonomy of being behind the wheel. Is this just shiny technology for technology’s sake? To score a “proof of concept and PR success”? Perhaps.
It’s always amused me that as cars grow more and more technologically advanced—with automating sensors and anti-collision safety features and anti-congestion controls—they’re basically just turning into trains. You know, those rather efficient, monodirectional transit units that were designed in the 19th century? We’re tweaking and twisting and exerting our limitless technological prowess to emulate a vehicle that’s been around for like two hundred years.