The newspaper The Economist in their most recent Technology Quarterly considers whether a technology that lets drivers remain in their cars, but asks them to relinquish control on long journeys, have any chance of success. The article cites automobile “platoons” as a possible solution to congestion and would afford reduced fuel consumption.
The idea, says the article, is that “by joining platoons as they snake along motorways under the control of a professional lead driver, motorists will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride. As passengers they could catch up on some reading, watch a film, surf the internet or even have a snooze. The benefits would come from reduced congestion and lower fuel consumption. Somewhat counter-intuitively, platooning might also make roads safer.”
Reduced fuel consumption is obtained by reducing drag brought about by slipstreaming – a concept readers familiar with Formula 1 racing will understand. Effectively when a car tucks itself into the slip stream of the car in front it can attain an identical speed and burn less fuel in the process – effectively the car in front is propelling the follow-car forward.
The gap between vehicles in the platoon will be small, but computer-controlled systems would respond to any sudden braking or other hazards. The close spacing would allow more cars to fit on the road, reducing congestion.
The Economist says any car wishing to join a platoon would specify its desired destination, making it possible to identify a nearby platoon heading the right way. The car then pulls up behind the moving platoon and a wireless standard developed specifically for communications between vehicles, called IEEE 802.11p, enables the car to be enslaved by the lead vehicle, probably a lorry or coach with a qualified driver. The car stays under the control of the leader until its driver wishes to leave the platoon.
The article also points out that as ambitious as this sounds, it is more than just theory. Earlier this year road tests were carried out. The initial goal was modest: to put a single car under the control of a lorry, with both travelling at 50kph (31mph). After the success of these first tests the speed was pushed up to 70kph, and this summer the first multiple-vehicle tests will begin with up to three cars and two lorries.