The biggest benefits will come with fully automated cars. Cars that park themselves—a trick GM has demonstrated with its EN-V concept vehicle—could save fuel by eliminating the need for drivers to circle the block waiting for a parking space to open up. The ambition is for a car to drop its owner off and go directly to the nearest available parking spot—even if that spot happens to be miles away, too far for the owner to walk. When it’s time to leave, the owner notifies the car with a smart phone, and it picks him or her up.
Vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which allows vehicles to travel on highways very close together at consistent speeds, could also reduce fuel consumption. If a truck in a convoy brakes, it sends a signal slowing down the following trucks instantaneously. A spacing of four meters reduces wind resistance for the following trucks, and could reduce fuel consumption by 10 to 15 percent, Boules says. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication could also reduce congestion by cutting accidents, coordinating traffic intelligently, and “getting rid of those drivers who accelerate through red lights.” The U.S. Department of Transportation is sponsoring work to enable this last goal using sensors in stop lights that can communicate with smart vehicles.
BMW’s semi-autonomous test vehicle automatically brakes, accelerates, and passes slower vehicles—at over 70 miles per hour. It can also slow down or change lanes to allow merging cars onto the road. It uses lidar, radar, ultrasound, and video cameras to keep track of its surroundings—each technology checks against the others for improved accuracy—and pairs this with GPS and maps.
In the more distant future, if automated cars prove as safe as Boules thinks they can be, it could allow engineers to completely redesign cars. “You could remove the weight dedicated to crash protection, using very light materials for the skin instead of metals,” Boules says.
Boules believes fully automated cars could be built by the next decade, but admits that new regulations will be needed before they can be sold.
Platooning cars will provide fuel savings by allowing cars to draft behind other cars and face less wind resistance. They may used on motorways in as little as ten years time. This is the first time the EU SARTRE team tried their systems together outside the simulators.
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