Driverless cars complete Spanish circuit

Volvo-led driverless car project passes live test in Spain

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

The idea that cars can drive themselves is becoming well-known in the U.S., thanks to the efforts of Google. But this past weekend in Europe, a train of cars drove themselves 125 miles on Spanish highways.

A SARTRE engineer enjoys his morning coffee behind the wheel. (SARTRE)

Three cars and a truck followed a lead vehicle outfitted with wireless communications. The trailing vehicles were set to mimic the lead vehicle, which did have a professional driver.  They averaged 50 mph.

The train was the first public road test for SARTRE – Safe Road Trains for the Environment – an ongoing joint venture of seven groups, including Volvo (owned by Ford when SARTRE started; now owned by Zhejiang Geely, a Chinese company) and the British engineering firm Ricardo.

The British trade magazine The Engineer reported that the cars were basically normal Volvos outfitted with current safety systems, including cameras, radar and laser sensors:

The vehicles monitor the lead vehicle and also other vehicles in their immediate vicinity. By adding in wireless communication, the vehicles in the platoon ‘mimic’ the lead vehicle using Ricardo autonomous control — accelerating, braking and turning in exactly the same way as the leader.

This was the first test on public roads for the project, which has run 10,000 miles worth of tests on private tracks. SARTRE directors argue that such trains are safer than normal driving, and can be more fuel efficient, because the cars run close together, giving them a drafting effect that improves gas mileage. The cars in the public road test were set to be about 6 meters apart, not quite tailgating, but closer than would normally be the case.

An upbeat company video of the event is here:

There are still numerous questions and regulatory hurdles to overcome – how do you insure drivers of driverless cars? Will they really save more gas?

But driverless cars are fun to dream about. They certainly would give new meaning to the idea of the designated driver.