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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Do I Feel a Draft?

Any fan of racing knows what drafting is.  This most basic of techniques is used in everything from carts to Formula 1 to gain a speed advantage over the leading vehicle.  For the uninitiated or the less scientifically inclined, here's a quick explanation courtesy of Tom Cruise as Cole Trickle.  Even if you already know what drafting is, a 23 year old Nicole Kidman is always fun to watch.  Skip to 1:20 for the technical analysis of drafting. (Warning: NSFW)

While drafting will always have its place in racing (as long as racing involves fluid dynamics), it's about to have a huge impact on the way people commute in everyday life.  For the past couple years, Volvo cars along with the engineering firm Ricardo have been working on a project called SAfe Road TRains for the Environment, or SARTRE.  With funding by the European Union, they believe technology can bring cars within close proximity of each other to create a road train, also known as a platoon.  If achievable, this train of cars would reduce the chance of driver error, accidents, fatigue, stress, and fuel consumption.

 Although the term "drafting" had never been uttered in any article about this project, it is the basis for the entire thing.  With a professional driver in the lead vehicle, most likely to be something like a bus or big rig, he creates a very large air pocket for the trailing cars.  As a car approaches the lead vehicle, the electronic brains of each vehicle communicates to determine the final destination of the professional driver.  If the car's destination is on the way, sensors for distance, speed, and proximity along with satellite navigation bring the car into the draft of the bus or other trailing cars.  At this point the non-professional drivers are free to relax while the pro takes control of the train and those sensors keep all the cars in line.  As a car's destination approaches, the driver signals his intention to leave the train, then a larger gap in the train is made for egress, and the driver regains control of his vehicle to go on his merry way.

As you can see with a professional driver, who has much more training and miles under his belt, at the helm, there is a lot lower chance for him to make a mistake and cause an accident compared to your everyday motorist.  Additionally, the drivers in the train are just passengers until they need to regain control near their destination.  Just like a passenger on a conventional train, they are free to break out their laptop, read a book, or have a light snack if they packed one.  Remember there's no dining car here.  All these things contribute to a less stressed driver behind the wheel.

Extreme Drafting

In addition to the advantages to each individual driver, they all benefit from a huge 20% increase in fuel efficiency because they can travel much closer together than if each car was driven by an individual driver with no knowledge of what the others are about to do.  This closer proximity allows the air resistance to be distributed evenly amongst the cars in the train as opposed to each individual traveler.  Of course, that 20% increase in fuel efficiency directly correlates to a more environmentally conscious commute.  Taken from another viewpoint, a the train could travel much faster and still maintain the fuel mileage of the individual cars if they were separate.

Looking at the hardware, this project isn't a hugely daunting task.  With infrared sensors and GPS already in cars, the only additional piece of equipment would be the communication device between the vehicles.  This is all peanuts compared to having to change the entire infrastructure of the national highways. 

To many enthusiasts this new way to travel would seem to be a huge blow against our ability to pilot our own vehicles in the manner we wish.  However, nobody ever said it was mandatory to join these trains.  If anything while everyone is queuing up for them, it leaves more road available for the people that prefer to drive themselves as well as removing those who think of driving as a chore.  That is a winning situation for everyone.

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