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Given all distractions available to drivers today, including cell phones, newspapers, tablets, and e-readers among other things, taking away the most demanding part of the ride — watching the road — may be a good idea. Road trains offer a means of keeping distracted drivers from making dangerous mistakes.

How Road Trains Works

Road trains are essentially convoys on autopilot. A lead car is still driven manually by a person, but all cars in the rear are linked to the lead car so that all of those vehicles are automated.

As mentioned above, a lead vehicle is necessary to guide the flow of the rest of the cars that follow behind. An on-board computer system that connects all of the cars wirelessly monitors the steering, acceleration and braking patterns of the lead driver and guides all of the follower cars accordingly.

Vehicles aren’t necessarily bound to follow the same path regardless of the driver’s intentions. Rather, all of the cars are independent within the system. As TreeHugger’s Brian Merchant explains, a car’s navigation system would alert the driver as to whether a road train ahead covered all or part of the driver’s journey.

If the Car Drives Itself, What Does the Driver Do?

The answer: Anything he or she desires. The system was intended to give drivers to do everything that a passenger could expect to accomplish while riding shotgun in the car, be it reading a book, watching a movie, eating breakfast or even taking a nap.

However, road trains are unlikely to take drivers door-to-door, which is why it is essential for drivers to maintain some idea about where they are if they intend to reach their destination.

Volvo Group

What Are the Benefits of Road Trains

By minimizing the possibility of human error as a result of distracted driving, road trains have the added benefit of providing a safer ride than drivers currently experience on the road. And since most traffic congestion is the result of roadside accidents, road trains could also permit a smoother traffic flow.

There’s also an added environmental benefit to implementing road trains. Since all of the cars within the system are piloted automatically, cars can travel closer to one another than would be safe had they been operated with independent drivers. By lining cars up more closely than they would be able to travel under current road conditions, fuel consumption can be significantly reduced, a bonus not only for Mother Nature but also the each driver’s wallet.

When Can We Expect This Technology?

Research has been underway to test whether this system can be implemented on the road for some time now. Earlier this year, the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) Project, a joint project by seven research firms in four countries, showed that the system can work on basic levels, allowing followers to follow lead cars and new cars to join in the road train, as reported by New Scientist.

However, there are still a number of hurdles to clear before automated road trains start appearing on a highway near you. First, there are technological issues still to be worked out. There are also legal questions to address. Drivers would also need to be trained on how to use such a system, and most importantly, they’d have to learn to trust it.

Given the advances in computing and wireless technology and all of the advantages of road trains, engineers involved in the SARTRE project insist that their system is the way of the future. Road tests in the United Kingdom and Sweden have shown the design can work. Further research on public roads in Spain will determine whether road trains really are ready for prime-time.

Following the successful demonstration in the Sweden, Volvo, one of the project’s partners, issued a press release stating that this technology should be on the road in 10 years time.

Until that day comes, it looks like we’ll all just have to put down the cell phone and act like attentive drivers. Bummer.