updated 9/25/2012 3:49:42 PM ET 2012-09-25T19:49:42

A European test of futuristic "road trains" has rolled to a finish, project leaders announced earlier this month. Road trains are a halfway step to fully automated cars that allow drivers to read, eat or even play card games with their passengers while they're a part of a networked train. 

The 3-year, $8.3 million (6.4 million Euro) test, including trips on public highways, brings the road train concept closer to reality. Some of the key technologies required are still in their prototype stage, however.

In a road train, a professional drives a large truck as the lead vehicle. Personal vehicles follow behind without requiring any human guidance. Instead, the  cars wirelessly communicate  with the truck and with each other, as  TechNewsDaily reported in May, when the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project first sent truck-led auto platoons out onto highways in Spain. A concept video from SARTRE officials shows a man turning around to play a card game with his kids in the back seat while they're on the highway. 

The project's researchers think such road trains will reduce drivers' fuel use by 10 to 20 percent, because the networked cars drive more closely than human-controlled cars would, creating lower air drag. The researchers, including people from academic and industry groups in the U.K., Germany, Sweden and Spain, also think the trains will improve traffic flow and reduce accidents. As of May, the cars had covered more than 6,200 miles (10,000 kilometers) since the start of the project in 2009. [ 5 Ways Self-Driving Cars Will Make You Love Commuting ]

Volvo, whose cars were used for the SARTRE study, has developed a prototype of software that drivers would use to request to join a nearby road train. The car company has also built a prototype of a unit that allows cars to communicate wirelessly with the lead truck and with each other. 

To get cars to mimic the acceleration and braking of the car in front of them, Volvo needed only to expand on existing technology. "We have extended the camera, radar and laser technology used in present safety and support systems," Erik Coelingh, a Volvo technical specialist,  said in a statement.

The  SARTRE website  says researchers will examine how road trains affect traffic and emissions, and but the site hasn't published those results. There's still plenty of work to be done on the concept before drivers in Europe and elsewhere will be able to join road trains on their local highways. 

"There are several issues to solve before road trains become a reality on European roads," Coelingh said. "Volvo Car Corporation is particularly focused on emergency situations such as obstacle avoidance or sudden braking." Another challenge ahead is figuring out a business plan for paying professional lead drivers, he said.

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