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 |  Jan 24 2012, 7:30 AM

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A major step towards self-driving cars, Volvo has announced its first successful test of what it calls a “road train”. As a part of the SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project, a test fleet of cars fitted with special equipment becomes a caravan of sorts, bunching up behind a lead vehicle and acting as a single “attached” unit – much like a train on tracks.

The driver, by giving over control of their vehicle to the train, can then use the time spent commuting to talk on the phone or eat. Being a Volvo initiative, this is more than just a convenience feature and something Volvo believes will significantly improve the safety on our roads by reducing the human potential for error. In addition, by regulating the driving and helping reduce or avoid the bunch-ups of stop-and-go traffic, it’s also a more fuel efficient method of travel. In fact, Volvo expects road trains to improve efficiency by up to 20 percent.

Volvo’s successful test included three cars following a lead truck at speeds of up to 90 km/h (56 mph), with 6 meters (roughly 20 feet) of space between each car.

“The aim is for the entire road train to be completed in autumn 2012. By then we will have four vehicles after one lead vehicle driving at 90 km/h,” says Erik Coelingh, technical project manager at the Volvo Car Corporation.

Designed to work on normal highways with other traffic, the SARTRE project is also studying what infrastructure changes would need to take place in order to bring road trains to European highways, not to mention issues of local laws and the tricky liability issue.

GALLERY: Volvo Road Train Test

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