Volvo and a team of European researchers are working on automotive technology that will allow line of cars on a highway autonomously follow a lead car.

Called 'vehicle platooning', the lead car would be driven manually with a road train of cars following close behind. That means that on your way to work you could read the paper, eat breakfast or put on make up while on the highway.  Even though the technology is about a decade away from being fully ready, Volvo already has a prototype vehicle.

Erik Coelingh, Volvo: "Now we're building up the first prototype vehicle for the platoon and as compared to a production vehicle, something that is really new is that we have to steer the vehicle automatically.

"So the vehicle has to automatically follow the car which is in front. What you can see here is that we are detecting an object in front of our vehicle and that the steering system is automatically steering int he right direction."

Another research outfit is using a simulator to test driver reactions to the system.

Javier Sánchez, Tecnalia: "We are learning how humans, how people react when they are driving so close situatino. When they are driving very close to the vehicle in front or how they feel when they are driving in such platoon systems. There are some reactions that are different than we had expected."

He said that some people completely trust the systme while others don't. Even a fellow researcher was hesitant about taking her eyes off the road.

Maider Larburu, Tecnalia: "Well now I feel quite nervous, but for me its really good because I never have time to read the newspaper. I feel safe, but I prefer to look at the road and not read the newspaper, but yes I feel safe."

Because the safety of the drivers in the platoon is ultimately the responsibility of the lead driver, there are a number of safety precautions in place. The lead driver will have to insert a security card and test negative for alcohol use before the truck can be started. Once on the road, another system monitors his alertness.

Erik Nordin, Volvo: "For example we have a driver monitoring system from another European project called havid which detects if the driver gets distracted from traffic. Based on this driving support systems we help the driver to lead the platoon in a safe way through the traffic."

While part of the research is focused on how to make the technology work, another part is trying to understand what can go wrong.

"So we're trying to understand what can go wrong with the concept of platooning. And it may be things like the first car in a platoon is about to have an accident and what woudl be the consequences of the following cars and how can we solve it and address all these issues."

Volvo isn't the only car maker with the idea of vehicle platooning, Nissan is also working on similar technology. Called Eporo these robots can follow each other, adjust their speeds and avoid obstacles on their own, without the help of the lead vehicle. So while one day we may be able to take our eyes off the road and trust technology to get us where we want to go, there's one thing that Volvo and Nissan agree on, it's a long way off.
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