The most alarming thing about taking your hands off the steering wheel when hurtling along the road at 90 kilometres an hour is just how quickly you get used it. There is a brief moment of initial uncertainty, but then you quickly stop worrying about who is control and just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Welcome to the brave new world of semi-autonomous cars. I say "semi" because this car is not entirely driving itself. Volvo calls it a platoon: a convoy of moving cars that are wirelessly coupled together, one behind the other, into a road train, all under the control of a single professional lead driver.
With the adaptive cruise control already turned on, all it took was the push of two onscreen buttons and the car appeared to take on a mind of its own. The steering wheel began to move by itself as though possessed, while the car gently accelerated to close the gap to just 6-metres behind the vehicle in front.
Besides freeing up some time for drivers to catch up on reading, crack open the laptop, watch a movie or grab a bite, Volvo believes there are broader gains to be had from this kind of technology. Vehicles driving in such tight formations with fewer speed fluctuations should dramatically reduce congestion, says Erik Coelingh, Volvo's senior technical specialist who is heading the research near Gothenburg. The reduction in drag could potentially cut fuel consumption by as much as 20 per cent, he says.
Then there's the issue of safety. With as many as 10 vehicles linked together via a vehicle-to-vehicle version of Wi-Fi – an IEEE standard called 802.11p – the train as a whole moves as one, with all vehicles mimicking the actions of the lead.
This means that even though they are travelling much closer than is normally advised – or even legal in some countries – their reaction time disappears in an emergency braking scenario, with all vehicles breaking in unison, avoiding a collision.
So confident is Volvo in this safety mechanism, it says that if the lead vehicle were to drive off a cliff, the next vehicle could stop before reaching the edge. Luckily, I don't have to put this hypothesis to the test.
At least that's the theory. But, given the recent advances in autonomous vehicles , do we really need platoons? Sitting in the passenger seat beside me, Coelingh points out that cars like Google's fully-autonomous prototypes are highly impressive but they are still very much research prototypes, consisting of vehicles with expensive equipment bolted on. "We wanted to use existing technology to the largest extent possible," says Coelingh.
There isn't a wire or circuit board in sight in the V60  I'm sitting in. With the exception of a discrete aerial on the roof and a touch screen on the dashboard, it looks and feels like a finished product. Almost all the sensors and actuators that keep me from flying off the road now come as standard in most new Volvos (and other manufacturers for that matter). They are the exact same ones that enable cars to stay in lanes and avoid hitting other cars and pedestrians.
What's more, we are not yet ready for autonomous cars. With the exception of only a few places in the world, such as Nevada and California , autonomous cars could not legally drive on roads. There are still a host of legislative and liability issues to sort out first, says Coelingh.
For platoons, it's possible that many of these issues can be overcome sooner – roughly 10 years – and in the process act as a stepping-stone towards full autonomy, he says. Platoons have already been tested on public roads in Spain.
And even when autonomous cars arrive, the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, says Dave Shemmans, CEO of Ricardo, a British engineering firm involved in the EU's €6.4 million Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project. "Even with fully autonomous vehicles you can still do platooning," he says.
As my time on the test track comes to an end and I prepare to disengage from the platoon, it occurs to me that the notion of driving as a form of freedom – with the wind in your hair and the open road before you – no longer applies. But for most drivers, the reality is much more mundane anyhow, with countless hours spent in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
I disengage from the platoon, gently apply the brakes and suddenly I'm on my own again, the road demanding my attention once more. Where's the freedom in that?
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