PARIS – A European-funded research project to develop a safe way of having cars drive themselves automatically in a train behind a single truck will get its first road test by the end of December.

A report released by the European Sartre project (for SAfe Road TRains for the Environment) says researchers hope to have a 5-vehicle train working by the end of the 3-year project in 2012.

Engineers presented three papers on the project in October at the ITS World Congress in Busan, South Korea.

The first year has been devoted mainly to establishing the concept of platooning. The idea is that on a freeway with limited access, a single professional driver could lead a platoon of cars connected wirelessly at 56 mph (90 km/h). Drivers in the following cars could eat, read newspapers or play video games until they decide to leave the platoon and exit the freeway.

The concept would save fuel, because cars would draft on each other as in NASCAR races and traffic would be more fluid. Long trips would be more relaxing for drivers.

“The technology has to be such that it doesn't cause more problems than it solves,” Volvo Car Corp.’s Erik Coelingh says in a documentary film produced by the project. “We are trying to understand what can go wrong.”

The technology to automate a car to follow another closely is well known. Cars must be able to steer themselves as well as brake and accelerate. Sensors on the Volvos used as test mules locate the car ahead and guide the steering to follow.

A Sartre document says platooning is at least 10 years from introduction, and probably more, but some spin-off technologies may come earlier, such as slow-speed following in traffic jams. Volvo already offers an adaptive cruise control for slow speeds that do everything but steer the car.

To allow cars to drive themselves, laws would have to be changed and people would have to get used to trusting their lives to wireless communication and computer software.

Part of the project is testing people’s reactions in a driving simulator in which they are in a platooned car for a simulated 11 miles (18 km).

“We are learning how people react when they are driving so close,” says Javier Sanchez of software developer ESI-Tecnalia, based near Bilboa, Spain. “Lots of people trust the system, and others do not trust at all and have to be convinced.”

The seven organizations working together on the project are SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, Ricardo plc of Britain, Robotiker-Tecnalia Technology Centre of Spain, Applus+ IDIADA of Spain, the Institut für Kraftfahrzeuge of the RWTH Aachen University in Germany, Volvo Technology Corp. and Volvo Car.