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European 'Road Train' Cars Drive Themselves While You Sleep (PICTURES)

The Huffington Post     First Posted: 01/22/11 08:13 AM ET   Updated: 05/25/11 07:25 PM ET

Imagine you're driving down the highway, when you pass a column of cars cruising in tandem. You notice with awe that the steering wheel in each car moves autonomously while the drivers eat, read and get ready for work--some drivers even appear to be sleeping! If this sounds too good to be true, you're in for another shock: you've just received a sneak peek at 2021.

Testing of this so-called "road train" system is already underway in Europe, where the European Commission-backed Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) program has partnered with companies like Volvo Car Corporation to develop technology that will make driving safer, easier and more efficient.

A "road train" describes a line of cars, each outfitted with advanced steering and sensory technology, that follow behind a leader vehicle, which guides the cars as they travel along a preprogrammed route. Each car in the "train" communicates with the leader via Wi-Fi, thus requiring little to no input from their individual drivers, who are free to take their eyes off the road and engage in other activities behind the wheel.

Until recently, this system has been tested only in simulations. The first "road train" hit the streets in December 2010, Wired reports. This real-world test took place on a snowy road outside of Gothenburg, Sweden and consisted of a mini-train of only two cars, a Volvo S60 and its leader vehicle. The next step for researchers will be to add more cars to the train and tighten the distance between each car.

In addition to reducing human-error collisions, SARTRE researchers hope this system of driving will increase fuel efficiency by as much as 20 percent, according to CNN. With each car traveling at a constant speed only a few meters apart, these "road trains" are also likely to ease traffic congestion on crowded roads.

Look through our slideshow (below) to see photographs from Volvo's test of the SARTRE "road train" test, as well as animations that show how a multi-car road train will function. Then, check out plans for China's 3D Express Coach, a two-story bus that can pass directly over smaller cars on the road. For more on the future of driving, view our slideshow of concept cars from 2010's Geneva Motor Show.

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The "road train" system, also known as "platooning," lets drivers relax while their cars steer themselves. The "platoon" leader wirelessly controls the speed and direction of the cars sharing its network connection.
Image credit: Ricardo and the SARTRE consortium
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