Monday, January 30, 2012

Automatic 'Road Train' System May Revolutionise Road Haulage Freight Convoys

Highway Platoons Under the Control of Lead Vehicle Become a Reality
Shipping News Feature

EUROPE – To a freight truck driver or a logistics professional a ‘Road Train’ is a truck and drawbar trailer, but in modern parlance through the corridors of power in Europe the phrase has a much more literal meaning, and a lot of people are working toward making a safer method of highway motoring which would see vehicles travelling in a ‘train’ under the control of a single lead vehicle being handled by a professional driver and which might well have interesting ramifications for long distance road haulage movements.

The SARTRE project is funded by the European Commission in an attempt to ‘develop strategies and technologies to allow vehicle platoons to operate on normal public highways with significant environmental, safety and comfort benefits.’ Managed by a British company, Ricardo UK Ltd, in cooperation with six European partners, the project has just seen the successful completion of the first test demonstrations of a multiple vehicle platoon. The test fleet included a lead truck followed by three cars driven entirely autonomously at speeds of up to 90 km/h – with no more than 6 metres gap between the vehicles.

The realization of what, up to now, has been merely an aspiration has meant that one of the first tasks for the project is to find acceptable terms to describe both the new technologies utilised within the vehicles themselves and the modus operandi of actual on the road operation. These terms need to be included in the legal requirements of every country to define when vehicles become fully, as opposed to partially or even highly automated and indeed to gain acceptance of the description of such ‘train’ movements as ‘platooning’.

Both the Car and Technology sectors of the Volvo Corporation are engaged in the SARTRE collaboration as well as another Swedish stakeholder SP Technical Research Institute together with Idiada and Robotiker-Tecnalia of Spain and the Institut für Kraftfahrwesen Aachen (IKA) of Germany. Together the partners are working towards safer transport, since the vehicle platoons are led by a professional driver in a truck and inter-vehicle reaction response times are much quicker. Environmental impact is reduced, since the vehicles follow close behind each other and reap the benefit of lower air drag. The consequent energy saving is expected to be in the region of up to 20%, with road capacity used more efficiently.

Although cars are the principal subject of the experiment at present there is good reason to believe that it is in the road haulage sector that the project might well prove most useful. Modern lorries are fitted with automatic cruise control and speed governing systems as standard equipment, the first building blocks toward the unanimity required by a platooning system. SARTRE project director, Tom Robinson of Ricardo UK said:

“The successful completion of the first multiple vehicle tests of the SARTRE system is a significant achievement. This has allowed us to demonstrate the operation of SARTRE road train technology to key industry experts and to capture their responses, all of which were very encouraging. The demonstration system provides us with a solid foundation for further consideration of the challenges of bringing road trains to reality”.

Mr Robinson’s enthusiasm was echoed by Erik Coelingh, technical project manager at the Volvo Car Corporation who commented that the aim was for the entire road train to be completed in autumn 2012 when four vehicles will travel in convoy behind the lead truck with Carl Bergenhem from the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden adding that the challenge has been to develop reliable communication between the vehicles in the platoon as vehicle to vehicle communication is essential to ensure safety at high speeds and short vehicle spacing.

A video of how the system might operate is viewable HERE and may take a minute or so to load.