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Join a road train, take your hands off the wheel

Safe driver? Yes, drivers in the future may join road trains that allow them to take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel.SARTRE via YouTube

The road to driverless cars of the future may be a highway lined with trains of cars that autonomously follow human-driven trucks, according to Volvo.

The car company and its European partners just completed the Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE)  project, successfully showing the potential for so-called platooned traffic.

The concept is a step towards a future where we leave all the driving to robots. Here, drivers pilot their cars onto a highway where they join with a regularly scheduled “road train.” 

Once joined up with the train, drivers are free to take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. Read the newspaper. Play games with the kids in the backseat. Take a nap. When your exit comes up, drivers manually leave the train. The concept is demonstrated in the video below.

The lead truck is driven by a professionally trained human at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. The cars in the train simply follow the lead vehicle. 

The ability for cars to do so comes from existing camera, radar and laser technology developed for systems such as adaptive cruise control and parking assistance, Volvo said.

The only new features are an interface that humans can use to join and leave trains as well as short-range vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems so that cars in the train can talk to each other.

In addition to the joy of not having to stay focused on the road drive down mind-numbing stretches of highway, the technology will save fuel given the reduced air drag, improved traffic flow, and better utilization of available road real estate, according to the SARTRE project.

Before the trains become a reality, hurdles include obstacle avoidance and sudden braking. But such technicalities are smaller feats than those required for fully robotic cars driving down city streets.

 – via IEEE 

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.