SARTRE on a public motorway outside Barcelona, Spain

What’s a platoon? Simply put, the vehicles that are around you at that instant form the platoon you belong to. When the light turns red at a signal, the vehicles that have already crossed the signal are in a different platoon, and the vehicles that will start with you when the light turns green, form your platoon now. The SARTRE project stands for Safe Road Trains for the Environment. SARTRE wants to change the way you travel, by developing safe environmental road trains or platoons.

A three year old European Union project, involving seven collaborating partners is led by Ricardo UK Ltd with Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology of Sweden being two of the seven.

A road train/platoon as proposed by the team consists of a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver followed by a number of vehicles. Building on Volvo Car Corporation’s and Volvo Technology’s already existing safety systems – including features such as cameras, radar and laser sensors – the vehicles monitor the lead vehicle and also other vehicles in their immediate vicinity. The lead vehicle and the convoy also communicate wirelessly, and the the vehicles in the platoon “mimic” the lead vehicle using Ricardo autonomous control, accelerating, braking and turning as the leader does.

This project is of course slightly different from Google’s autonomous vehicle. The SARTRE project involves the human element in the lead vehicle and the convoy just mimics the lead vehicle. Considering the level of skill displayed by the majority of road users, we can assume that it would be much safer for a majority of drivers to let the system follow the pro driver in the lead, when travelling on a highway. The system is convenient for the users as it will allow them to do something else instead of monotonously gobbling up the miles. As Linda Wahlström, project manager for the SARTRE project at Volvo Car Corporation points out, the distance between the vehicles in the convoy is much less and thus reduced air drag and better fuel efficiency.

The only cause of concern for the team is surprisingly, the ability of the passengers to acclimatize to sitting in the drivers seat doing nothing and letting the system take over. Tom Robinson, project manager, Ricardo UK Ltd., says people acclimatize quickly and the next generation of drivers would find it much easier.

“Driving among other road-users is a great milestone in our project. It was truly thrilling,” says Linda Wahlström. The vehicles drove at 85 kilometres an hour. The gap between each vehicle was just six metres. “During our trials on the test circuit we tried out gaps from five to fifteen metres,” relates Linda Wahlström.

There is also the biggest draw of the system : the only addition to the cars that make them different from any Volvo you would buy from a showroom, is the wireless network installed between the cars!

“We’ve focused really hard on changing as little as possible in existing systems. Everything should function without any infrastructure changes to the roads or expensive additional components in the cars. Apart from the software developed as part of the project, it is really only the wireless network installed between the cars that set them apart from other cars available in showrooms today.” says Linda.

Linda Wahlstrom Project Manager  for SARTRE, Volvo Car Corporation

Part-funded by the European Commission under the Framework 7 programme, SARTRE is led by Ricardo UK Ltd and comprises collaboration between the following additional participating companies: Idiada and Tecnalia Research & Innovation of Spain, Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge Aachen (IKA) of Germany and SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Volvo Car Corporation and Volvo Technology of Sweden.