Road train tested on public roads

Your first robot car might not be the totally-robot google kind, but a lesser robot that only takes over when you’re on the freeway.  Volvo has taken their long-running road train test to public streets in Spain.

Volvo used three vehicles – a XC60, a V60 and a S60 – that drove autonomously following a truck for 200 kilometers (124 miles) at 85 kilometers an hour (53 miles per hour) on the roads outside Barceolona. The follows vehicles used “cameras, radar and laser sensors” and wireless communication to copy what the lead vehicle is doing “using Ricardo autonomous control – accelerating, braking and turning in exactly the same way as the leader.” The vehicles were about six meters (20 feet) apart.

Road Trains Tested In The Real World

Road Train Test

Road trains (also called vehicle platooning) are convoys of semi-autonomous vehicles with a professional driver in the lead vehicle.  The Safe Roads and Trains for the Environment initiative (SARTRE) describes road trains as:

…a convoy of vehicles where a professional driver in a lead vehicle drives a line of other vehicles. Each car measures the distance, speed and direction and adjusts to the car in front. All vehicles are totally detached and can leave the procession at any time. But once in the platoon, drivers can relax and do other things while the platoon proceeds towards its long haul destination.

Road trains were actually tested in the real world by Volvo, who is part of the SARTRE team, in December.  They cite the benefits of road trains as numerous:

Platooning is designed to improve a number of things: Firstly road safety, since it minimises the human factor that is the cause of at least 80 percent of the road accidents. Secondly, it saves fuel consumption and thus CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent. It is also convenient for the driver because it frees up time for other matters than driving. And since the vehicles will travel at highway speed with only a few meters gap, platooning may also relieve traffic congestion.

There are some potential downsides to road trains as well, but ideally they can deliver many of the benefits of intra-city transit without some of the drawbacks.  Really road trains are just a stepping stone to fully autonomous cars, and caveats of same apply here as well.

Road Trains: The Best of Both Worlds?

The idea of “road trains”, a group of cars using advanced technology to form a caravan of cars driven semi-autonomously, arose from two different sources this week.

The (in)famous Antiplanner, Randall O’Toole, touts road trains as a congestion-relief solution superior to rail building in his new book, Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.  He says building new roads is “politically difficult” and that new passenger rail construction “rarely makes economic sense”.  Enter road trains.  They can increase the capacity of existing road networks, according to O’Toole.  He claims this technology can increase highway lane capacity by 200% to 400%.

The second source is the EU’s Safe Roads and Trains for the Environment initiative, which is actually implementing the road train concept.  Cars signal their destination wirelessly to road trains already on the road, and then technology takes over to group the cars and control steering, braking and navigation.  The lead vehicle, perhaps a bus or truck driven by a more experienced driver, monitors the status of the road train.  When you approach your exit, your car leaves the train and you resume manual control.  The EU work suggests fuel consumption for the vehicles behind the lead vehicle can be cut by 20%.

This approach avoids the large costs associated with embedding sensors in roadways to guide vehicles, and instead relies on technology within each vehicle (collision avoidance, navigation system, automated braking and steering).  O’Toole puts the cost of this technology at between $1,000 and $10,000 per vehicle.  I’m interested to see if his book includes a calculation of how much transit, bike lanes or other alternatives you could buy for the cost of installing this technology in all vehicles.

The benefits of this technology are numerous if it can be implemented:

  • A reduction in fuel consumption.
  • Providing the comfort and independence of an SOV with some of the efficiencies of transit.
  • Not having to drive.  Giving car passengers back their driving time, for leisure or productivity, would be a huge gain.

I see some downsides though:

  • Increasing capacity on highways doesn’t equal increased capacity on city streets.  This technology is perfect if every destination is adjacent to a freeway off-ramp.  However, greatly increasing the capacity of highways while keeping the city streets (where drivers still have to use their puny human brains to drive) the same seems like it would equal chaos.
  • Equity.  This “solution” to congestion puts all of the costs onto the car owner.  If you think everyone should have equal access to the transportation system (and you plan your land use so that a car is almost essential), you should think about how to make this technology (which probably means a new car) affordable to everyone.  O’Toole suggests “transportation vouchers”, an idea based on people making personal choices about the best transportation mode (although he really thinks there shouldn’t be any choice, the car is king).  Not a bad idea necessarily, but I would suggest combining it with a true mileage tax to raise the necessary revenue.  I assume O’Toole supports this idea since he says in his book review that he does not support any government subsidy to transportation.
  • Different cars and maintenance regimes = crashes?  In all the articles about road trains, I haven’t seen any discussion about how to handle the different capabilities of individual cars.  Some cars have much better brakes than others.  Some cars can accelerate more quickly.  People maintain their cars differently (meaning they do less maintenance).  Can the technology compensate for the different capabilities of each car?  Does each car “know” the distance required to stop based on its components and the condition of its parts?  Bringing this technology to the real world means accommodating all kinds of cars, of varying ages, types and capabilities.  Unless of course this advantage is made available only to those who are able to afford the newest and best vehicles, or we move to a uniform, government-regulated and maintained pod-car.