Is Road Train a reality?

Perhaps.

The project is a collective effort funded by the European Commission, and led by British company Ricardo which develops engines, transmissions, and vehicles systems among other things. Chief among the consortium’s participants is Swedish auto manufacturer Volvo.
Utilizing Volvo’s own automobiles, the project works by stringing together a group of cars in order to form a road train. This train (or caravan if you prefer) allows a group of cars to follow one another along any road autonomously. Guided by a lead truck driven by a professional driver, the group of autonomous autos can communicate wirelessly via advanced software, cameras, laser sensors, radar, and GPS-based technology in order to mimic the lead truck’s driving behavior. The drivers turn, the following cars turn. The driver slows down, the following cars slow down. All while maintaining appropriate distance and speed…Other than looking rather impressive, what’s the point? Well, not only is autonomous driving insanely awesome – representing the real-life fulfillment of one of our most beloved science fiction technologies — in this scenario it also happens to be incredibly fuel efficient thanks to the road train’s persistent drag reduction while along its route. Early estimates indicate as much as 20 percent more efficient when it comes to reducing fuel

Read all about it, and look at the interesting pictures and diagrams, here.

Here is an animation:

Comments

  1. #1 Lynn Wilhelm
    May 30, 2012

    I really like this concept. I wonder when we can expect it to happen here. I’m sure there are lots of truck drivers who could use some extra cash–I do assume there would be a fee.

  2. #2 SplatterPaterns
    May 30, 2012

    No way a 20% reduction in fuel usage with the vehicle interval used in the video. Hard to envision any reduction at any interval and a speed much below 70-80 mph (as a guess) for the “train” as a whole. With intervals of a car length or less, the lead and the next one or two vehicles probably will get a slight gain in mileage at a higher speed. Those further back will be accelerating and decelerating too much in keeping station for the total system to save any fuel.

    Notice they don’t report any actual fuel use for the test.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    May 30, 2012

    Splatter, that’s what I thought too.

  4. #4 HertfordshireChris
    UK
    May 31, 2012

    Safety aspects worry me. For instance a car is overtaking a very long road train, not realising that it is longer than the distance to the next junction and finds it is trapped on the wrong side of the road train – will the driver try and push his way through the train to exit at the junction? Or is there a limit to the length of a road train? An what about one road train overtaking another and blocking all lanes – or will road trains we confined to the slow inside lanes? If the driver of the lead vehicle has a heart attack will the whole train follow the crashing vehicle off the road to disaster, while the drivers of the cars in the train are not paying attention to what is happening.

    There are many different ways that accidents can happen and I can’t see a mixture of road trains and ordinary traffic working except on top quality long distance roads.

    I also wonder about any saving – would you be saving say 10% of the fuel on 10% of the journey involving a road train, with only 10% of the journeys involving a road train – meaning an average saving of 0.1%.

    There are all sots of ways that an accident

  5. #5 Uncle Glenny
    May 31, 2012

    @ HertfordshireChris

    For instance a car is overtaking a very long road train, not realising that…

    That was my first thought too.

    Lane changes for the train would be an adventure too.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    May 31, 2012

    I’m assuming the road train goes on highways where there are no lights, cross streets, trains crossings, etc. But still, most highways are designed to function under the assumption that almost everything is under a few meters long, and longer things are driven by experts and are still 10 or so meters long at the longest (however long a big truck is). So yeah, an object that is 100 – 300 meters long may not really be manageable.

    On the other and, a fare “left” (or “right” depending) lane to which one is restricted if you are in a “train” like this might work. In Nebraska, places like that.

  7. #7 Alan(UK)
    UK
    May 31, 2012

    This might be shown to work under very special conditions – in a country where drivers obey traffic laws and act in a predictable manner. The real test would be what happens when something unexpected happens.

    Consider a British three-lane Motorway. The traffic is all flowing smoothly. The outside lane is for overtaking but heavy vehicles are not allowed – this is currently a 70mph traffic-jam. The middle lane is full of heavy vehicles also travelling at high speed. The inside lane is full of slow moving heavy gods vehicles and cars with timid drivers and those with hopes of turning off at some time in the future. Truckers etiquette requires that a slower moving one pulls into the slow lane when a faster one wants to pass – this can take miles if the speed difference is small. Truckers etiquette does not extend to any other road users.

    Thus our road-train is confined to the two inner lanes. The first problem is how our train manages to to even join the slow lane. The individual vehicles have to match their speed to the slow lane and pull into it as soon as a gap appears. There is no way that the whole train could fit in in one go. The lead truck has to stay in the slow lane while the rest sort themselves into order – can they even identify the other members of the train? Before they have re-formed the train, they are approaching the next junction, vehicles are pulling into the slow lane in preparation for turning off – our road-train is now even more broken up. All the other vehicles in the slow lane are now pulling out into the middle lane as there is a stationary queue ahead waiting to turn off. If our train had managed to reassemble, it will have to break up again to get past the stationary queue. The next hazard ahead is a contra-flow left from some long forgotten roadworks. The lanes now reduce to two with instructions that heavy vehicles take the inside one. Lines of cones now make lane changing impossible and the cars in our train are diverted onto the opposite carriage-way where they inevitably overtake the lead vehicle which is moving with the slowest vehicles in the other lane. The cones eventually end and the lead vehicle now has to overtake his train – this he must do without using the outside lane because he is not allowed there. So we are now all back in the slow lane trying to re-group.

    This comment is getting silly.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    May 31, 2012

    Greg @1209: In North America, single-trailer trucks can be up to 53 feet long (about 16 meters). Some areas (but not the region where I live) allow double and triple trailers; the latter can be 35 meters or so. Longer combinations such as envisioned here would be even more difficult to maneuver, and maneuver around.

    Road trains with mechanical coupling already exist in Australia. They are enough of a problem that the US State Department’s consular information sheet on Australia mentions them:

    If driving in rural areas, be cautious of free-roaming animals, such as kangaroos, and “road-trains” (several semi-truck trailers connected together). Passing road-trains is dangerous, and you should pull over to allow on-coming road-trains to pass to avoid being sideswiped.

    Note that these road trains are driven on rural surface routes, not (or not only) motorways.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    May 31, 2012

    It would work if they had their own road. And tracks. Tracks would be good.

  10. #10 daedalus2u
    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/
    June 1, 2012

    I think this is just an intermediate goal before full-autonomous vehicle control and driving.

    How much energy gets spend accelerating and decelerating depends upon the control algorithms used. If you try to maintain a rigid fixed distance with a “hard” control system, then yes it will take a lot of power to do so. If you allow the control to be “softer”, then it would take less. If every vehicle was tracked and connected, then the fluctuations come from things like wind gusts. Then the spacing can get very small (inches), or there could even be mechanical connections. You could also use variable vehicle exterior geometry to reduce drag while in road train format. I think the savings in that case would be much larger, over 50%.

    I think the point of autonomous control is also that speed is not as important. If you don’t need to pay attention while driving, then you could productively use the travel time to do other things, such as sleep, read or surf the internet.

    If they do mechanically couple, then power could be transferred between vehicles too. This might help mitigate the problem of short range for electric vehicles. If vehicles on short trips could enter the train fully charged and transfer their power to the vehicles on longer trips, then range might become unlimited depending on the mix of long and short trip vehicles.

  11. #11 Ian Kemmish
    June 4, 2012

    If you can get it where you are, the BBC News Channel’s “Click” programme for the week just ended has video of the trial. Which, since it was conducted on public roads, presumably had already addressed most of the concerns aired here.

    SplatterPatterns: “Those further back will be accelerating and decelerating too much in keeping station for the total system to save any fuel.” If humans are driving, one would expect this to be the case; if robots are driving, then it matters not where you are in the queue, every vehicle will be doing the same amount of accelerating and decelrating: to wit, not very much at all.

  12. #12 Wayne Campbell
    West Australia
    July 18, 2012

    This is the most impractical idea that seems to persist with those who have no knowledge of mechanical systems.
    I owned and operated full size road trains in Australia with up to four 40 foot units coupled together and it was the mechanics of the system that were the most difficult to manage.
    If one vehicle has a mechanical failure everyone stops – a huge waste and road hazard. AND I wouldn’t trust the single driver in front. remember this is a mono system dependent on one person so the complete system is prone to failure by one event whereas separate complex systems are difficult to fail as each component is autonomous and continues. Imagine the complexity of assembly, and departure from the line of each. and what if one changed their destination, had a heart attack etc. or there were many stops along the way. I certainly wouldn’t trust the mechanical reliability of other cars like I do my own as I keep and maintain them well
    This has no practical application with seperate cars, take a bus catch a train. The present system works just fine.
    And move on from this – Geez!
    Road trains do pass each other here in WA at 100 kmh and it is all safe as we have the roads and experience to operate properly the benefit is a road train can pick up and deliver large volumes direct to their clients without double handling.- I can’t see how this works with cars.