In the Sartre project, three self-driving Volvo cars "platoon" behind a commercial truck.

In the Sartre project, three self-driving Volvo cars "platoon" behind a commercial truck.

I'm old enough now that I'm increasingly seeing stuff from the science fiction books I devoured as a teenager become reality. No flying cars yet. Reading mail and newspapers electronically? Check. Video phones? Check. Driverless cars? Pretty close!

In fact, a couple of articles coming out of Europe lately indicate that commercial trucks, not Google cars, may be at the forefront of this concept.

In late May, the U.S. Department of Transportation opened the door for road-testing self-driving trucks by publishing policies for the three states that currently allow driverless vehicles: California, Nevada, and Florida. These guidelines open the door for driverless tests of all kinds. Overseas, meanwhile, experiments with driverless truck convoys—also known as “platoons”—have been under way for years.

CNET reports that "linking cars into a trainlike group can save fuel, fit more cars on the road, and potentially improve safety. A project in Europe shows it's not just a fantasy."

Volvo is involved in a European project called Sartre(Safe Road Trains for the Environment) has successfully tested a road train, led by a commercial truck driven by a professional driver, followed by a number of autonomously driven cars. It builds on safety systems built into the vehicles, such as cameras, radar and laser senros, to monitor not only the lead vehicle but also other vehicles in the vicinity. Wireless communication allows the cars in the platoon to mimic the lead vehicle, accelerating, braking and turning the same way as the leader.

CNET notes that "Sartre chose to use a bus or a truck as a special lead vehicle for a several of reasons. First, professional drivers are safer than ordinary ones. Second, using special vehicles simplifies payment for the privilege of being in a platoon. Third, large vehicles block the wind for better group aerodynamics. Last, cars can always brake better than trucks, so there's no risk of the lead vehicle stopping more abruptly than trailing cars can."

There's also a project in Japan that earlier this year tested a caravan of self-driving trucks. The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, or NEDO, conducted a successful test in February. NEDO was established as a semi-governmental organization in 1980 to promote new energy technologies.

One truck driven by a human was followed by three self-driving trucks. The caravan successfully used technologies for steering, maintaing speed and staying in formation, with a 4-meter distance between each truck at 80 kilometers per hour. More tests are scheduled for later this year and the group hopes to have a practical version ready around 2020. Read more on reports on these projects and also notes that driverless convoys are already being used in war zones, where supply trucks are subject to attack. The article also notes that mining operations in Chile and western Australia are using driverless dump trucks to transport ore and other materials.

NEDO was established as a semi-governmental organization in 1980 to promote .

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When it comes to highway use, the hope is that using convoys or platoons like this will help lower air resistance and reduce fuel consumption. But you also have to wonder what it could mean in the future as far as drivers.

Could it mean we'll need fewer drivers? I doubt you'd just send a convoy of four trucks with one driver across country. After all, who's going to handle actually getting the trucks off the road and into a parking spot or backing into a dock? But such a convoy could conceivably drive nearly 24 hours a day, with drivers taking turns handling the lead vehicle and spending time in the sleeper and just relaxing.

Read more on CNET

Related Story: What if Cars and Trucks Could Talk to Each Other?

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Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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