The Train Now Standing on the M1 is the 9.15 to London. (But it doesn’t end there)
Back in the old days, Bruce Forsythe used to say “I’m In Charge” and I guess that’s what most of us think when we are behind the wheel, but maybe in the not too distant future, its going to be a bunch of processors and micro-chips that decides what happens inside your car and not the driver.
Its true that the majority of road accidents are caused by human error, in fact ROSPA say as many of 95% of road accidents that are down to “the nut behind the wheel”, so wouldn’t it be great if that could be overcome that and make all these accidents a thing of the past.
Possible? Well yes but not just possible, but probable. Just look at the changes in aviation where aircraft are now fly by wire and regularly flown by computers, making the pilot almost redundant, or only needed in the case of an emergency. On a recent TV program, about modern aircraft, the narrator said that in a 10 hour flight, the pilot just needs to be there for a couple of minutes at take off and for 3 or 4 minutes when landing, but other than that, its the aircrafts automatic systems that do all the work and keeps the thing in the sky and on course. We already know that military drones (small aircraft) can be sent 100’s of miles using remote control and both take off and land without the need for pilots, although it’s pretty certain that the public would never agree for the big jets we fly on to go “driver free”.
So if complicated things like aircraft can be flown by computer, cars can’t be that difficult?
OK, sounds crazy, but we all know how much computers have affected our everyday lives and it’s got to be said, in most cases, it’s for the better. Whilst modern cars already have computers on-board, they are mainly just to control the way our cars run, but how long will it be, before they control where they go? Well, work is already taking place to make to make that happen.
Swedish car innovators, Volvo have been working on the project called “SARTRE” since 2009. Sartre stands “safe road trains for the environment” and just recently, it jumped off Volvo’s drawing board, out of Volvo’s testing grounds and onto the roads of Spain, where it’s just completed a trouble free 120 miles trip on public roads amongst normal traffic.
The road train (or some may say caravan) basically means that a group of cars follows one another along any road autonomously, in this case, lead by a professional lead driver in a truck. The cars wirelessly communicate with each other and use trick computerised bits along with cameras and GPS, to ensure all of the vehicles in the train, mimic the lead vehicles behaviour. In other words, if the lead vehicle turns at a particular spot, all of the vehicles turn, if the lead vehicle brakes, all vehicles brake and similarly, if the lead vehicle accelerates, so do the rest, but all the time, the systems ensure that all of the cars maintain an appropriate distance and speed. Scary stuff eh? But logic suggests it can work and better than that, Volvo have just proven it.
The road train is just one of the developments that could be adopted at some point in the future and its claimed the benefits are obvious something like this will not only make our roads a safer place as the “human element” is taken out of the equation, but it will also save in fuel costs, its claimed by up to 20%, whilst still giving drivers their own space and the opportunity to join and un-join at certain points.
So how near reality is this? Well Volvo took a road-train on a journey of 124 miles across Spain, with three computer controlled cars following a lead truck, running at a speed of 53mph and at a distance of 6 metres between vehicles. Fact is, that whilst this is early days, the system is going to be able to do even better than that as all of the vehicles are in sync, so the gap between them could be reduced even further, resulting in less drag and even greater economy. Don’t get overly excited yet, because although its really likely this will be something that happens, Volvo don’t envisage it being up and running until around 2020.
Moving on, everyone says we should talk more to each other and for car makers like Ford, well they believe our cars should talk to each other as well and are developing systems where your car is going to be talking to the other cars around it the whole time.
As you might expect, the chats not going to consist of what was on X-Factor last night or how well your teams doing in the league, no it’s going to be strictly business so each car knows where the other is and because of that, they can avoid running into one another. The crash avoidance system would use GPS and Wi-Fi and cars will communicate constantly over distances of almost 1,000 feet, so for example, one car can warn another if it’s blocking the road just around the next corner allowing the following driver to take appropriate actions much earlier and possibly avoiding an accident.
Meanwhile, US car giant General Motors is working on a ‘Super Cruise system’ that uses radar, GPS map data, ultrasonic sensors and cameras to enable the vehicle to drive itself by reading road markings and detecting other vehicles that’s around it and plans to introduce this tech to mainstream models as soon as 2015 and as an added bonus, its anticipated that because its computer controlled that its going to save us gas as well, so a win-win.
Just in case we do run into trouble and need to brake in a hurry, Mercedes are playing with what they call the worlds first “braking bag” which will deploy under the cars front axle in a critical emergency braking situation to make the vehicle more stable and help it stop quicker and this new system is going to be standard on all new S-Class from late this year, whilst our Swedish mates at Volvo are already at work on an airbag that deploys on the outside of the car to help reduce pedestrian fatalities.
OK, at the moment, most of this sounds a bit sc-fi, but remember when we were all impressed by the doors that automatically opened on Star Trek (which are now in every super market) or the fact that “bones” could communicate with the Kirk on the Enterprise from the planets surface, without being connected by wires (just like our mobile phones). Well we should be impressed again and expect these and more developments and to give you an indication, Audi have recently sent an autonomous computer controlled Audi TTS racing up the famous Pikes Peak hill climb course in Colorado, negotiating 156 bends, without a driver. Check the video out here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxZSK9KMOW8
Studies have shown that driver error, or perhaps driver reaction is the most common cause of accidents, so if there were just a way to take us out of the equation, or perhaps remove some of the decisions and entrust them to a bunch of micro-chips, well chances are that far fewer of us would get killed or injured. Its humans that make mistakes, so maybe we should be taken out of the system?
In real terms, when you consider the combined number of miles driven by all of the vehicles on our roads, its for sure, that they are already becoming safer places and its encouraging to know that boffins and eggheads are working on ways that will improve this further and when you add the potential these innovations offer and the way the fuel we use to power our vehicles is going to change, the next few years are probably going to see the biggest revolution in road transport we’ve seen for decades.