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Anyone who watched Britain’s four-man cycling team steam to Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008 will be familiar with the concept of slipstreaming: the chap at the front doing all the hard work, while the others behind him take advantage of the lack of wind resistance.
It’s a model that the team behind an EU-financed research project called Safe Road Trains for the Environment (Sartre) is hoping will cut CO2 emissions by 20% while freeing up room on Europe’s motorways.
The idea is to join up to eight vehicles by wireless sensors in so called road trains. Each train would be controlled by a professional, such as a long distance lorry driver, in the front vehicle. This would free up the seven drivers behind to have a nap or read, resuming control of their vehicle to leave the train wherever they wish. There could be a small charge for the service, but savings on fuel would make up for it.
Trials of the system are scheduled to hit test tracks around Europe in 2011, with Ricardo UK, the engineering firm heading up the Sartre team, forecasting that the first road trains could take to the motorways “within a decade”.
Ricardo UK’s Anthony Smith concedes that perhaps the greatest obstacle Sartre has to overcome is the public’s perception of what is safe. Most road users have a horror of tailgating, and getting them to trust their safety to another driver and some fancy electronics may not be easy.
Rupert Fausset, Forum for the Future’s transport expert, adds a cautious note with regard to CO2 emissions: “The bang-for-buck might be quite low on this compared with other options – for instance, you can save 20% in fuel consumption just by good driving”.
There’s also the question of whether road trains, by freeing up space on motorways, will not merely encourage more people to drive. However, as Phil Pettitt of transport technology centre innovITS points out, “If we don’t do anything to solve congestion, we’ll need more roads – and the laying of concrete is a very large CO2 emitter”.
And there’s the rub. Whether the coming of road trains delights or dismays us, there may come a day when we can’t do without them.