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Google's self-driving car faces competition from Europe

May 29, 2012|By Deborah Netburn

Google isn't the only one with a self-driving car up its sleeve.

Last week, the SARTRE project, a joint venture among seven European companies, took a convoy of three self-driving cars and one self-driving truck for a 124-mile test drive on a Spanish highway with no crashes, freakouts or major catastrophes.

In fact, nothing went wrong in the first test of a self-driving car platoon on a road populated with real motorists.

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The self-driving vehicles were linked together via wireless communication, with the vehicles in the group following the accelerating, braking and turning patterns set by the lead vehicle (in this case a truck), operated by a professional driver.

"People think that autonomous driving is science fiction, but the fact is that the technology is already here," Linda Wahlstrom, project manager for the SARTRE project at  Volvo Car Corp., said in a statement. "From a purely conceptual viewpoint, it works fine and road train will be around in one form or another in the future."

SARTRE stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment.

To join the convoy last week a driver said "Request for joining." If the request was accepted a computer network installed in the car told the driver to remove her hands from the wheel and to take her feet off the pedals. The driver was then free to flip through a magazine, eat some breakfast, put on make up or stare aimlessly out the window without fear of crashing.

But the project isn't just about making commuting more pleasant. Members of SARTRE, which include Volvo and Ricardo UK Ltd., hope that the road train will also increase driver safety by decreasing human error, and also improve fuel efficiency, because cars in a car train drive close together, eliminating wind drag. In the test drive last week, the team kept the cars between 16 and 50 feet apart, but settled on 20 feet as the ideal distance.

Of course, just because the technology for a road train may already be here, the SARTRE team does not expect that regular people will automatically be comfortable driving on a highway at up to 52 miles per hour without personally controlling their car.

"I think it gets easier as time progresses and people become more familiar with the technology, and accept it more. I think as generations progress they become more familiar with it and more accepting of it," said Tom Robinson, Project leader for SARTRE at Ricardo UK.

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