A third of the way through a pioneering project to create automated "road trains" in which cars can drive themselves, researchers have revealed some of the first findings from their work.

The SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) project aims to create semi-autonomous convoys of cars on highways, with the aim of reducing congestion and improving safety.

Each convoy would be led by a professional driver such as a trained trucker and follow a set route and speed, enabling drivers to pick the convoy that they want and join it in their own vehicle for part of the journey.

Once a car moves behind the convoy, an on-board computer takes over the steering and acceleration, following the car in front autonomously and allowing the driver to sit back and read the newspaper, have a coffee or make a phone call.

Drivers can regain control to leave the road train and pull off the highway at an exit for example.

The initial work has focused on defining the concept and preparing for the first vehicle tests, which are set to begin at the end of this year.

Researchers have also been able to test the response from drivers using the system in simulators, with some struggling to trust a system that drives so close to the vehicle in front at such high speeds.

Excellent progress has also been made on the technology that will allow the vehicles to communicate wirelessly, with a multiple-vehicle platoon test set for 2011.

The SARTRE project, which is made up of seven companies including Swedish automaker Volvo, admits that such a system is another ten years or more away but is keen to highlight the potential benefits of the service.

It's estimated that fuel consumption would drop by some 20 percent for drivers joining road trains, with accident rates reduced and more space available on roads thanks to closer car spacing.

Find out more and watch the documentary at http://www.sartre-project.eu

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