Car train shows opportunities for suppliers
Commercial prospects for "driverless" cars got a boost last month when four vehicles on autopilot successfully trailed a lead car on a 124-mile route near Barcelona, Spain.
The test run -- dubbed Project Sartre -- involved three Volvos and a semitrailer that maintained a 20-foot distance between vehicles at 53 mph.
Ricardo PLC, which organized the test with six other companies, used off-the-shelf radar and sensors, said Eric Chan, the chief engineer.
The vehicles used radar and cameras to determine the distances from other vehicles in the platoon -- the same hardware used for intelligent cruise control or collision avoidance. Software controlled the accelerator, brakes and steering wheel, leaving the driver as a passive monitor.
The experimenters improved the camera software, added a vehicle-to-vehicle communications system and installed a small computer to provide a user interface for the driver. And that was it.
"The aim was to create something that is ready for production in the near future," Chan said. "All the systems that we used are already in production or close to it."
Project Sartre is the product of a three-year-old joint venture of Ricardo, Volvo Car Corp., Volvo Technology and four other organizations.
The road train included a Volvo XC60, V60 and S60, plus a semitrailer. The vehicles followed a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver for 124 miles on public roads outside Barcelona.
In theory, the car platoon offers three benefits:
1. Motorists can relax and do other tasks on long trips.
2. Vehicle speed can be optimized to improve fuel efficiency by an estimated 20 percent.
3. Highways could safely accommodate denser traffic.
Although Project Sartre's car platoon required vehicle-to-vehicle communications, it did not need sensors installed on the highway. And its platoons can, in theory, share the road with cars that lack vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
Ricardo will wrap up Project Sartre this year when it publishes a report on the results. There's no immediate plan to create a commercial version.
But it appears to offer some possibilities to suppliers of collision-avoidance sensors -- companies such as Robert Bosch GmbH, Continental AG, Denso Corp., TRW Automotive, Delphi Automotive and Autoliv Inc.
Help for traffic jams
In 2010, Google gained attention with a small fleet of driverless Toyota Priuses guided by video cameras and revolving lidar sensors mounted on the roof. Lidar, short for light detection and ranging, is an infrared laser sensor that measures distances.
Continental subsequently introduced its own driverless car, a Volkswagen Passat with radar sensors, video cameras and onboard computers.
Christian Schumacher, Continental's North American director of engineering systems, said in April that the next step for driverless cars would be traffic jam assist, in which the vehicle steers, accelerates and brakes itself at speeds below 37 mph.
The future of car platoons would look brighter if traffic jam assist is implemented, but Ricardo's Chan said he could not predict whether car platoons can be commercialized.
"From a technical point of view, it could be done in a few years," Chan said, referring to car platoons. "But from a legal point of view, it would take a bit longer. That is very hard to predict."
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