Hands off the wheel at 100km/h

Goofing off at the wheel might be legal sooner than you think

The most grueling part of long-distance drive has to be the last couple of hundred kays. You know how it is: you’ve seen the sights, had the adventure then turned homewards, watched the countryside roll by, and then turned onto the damn freeway. That last bit is insomnia-curingly hateful – at least it always is for me. I pity anyone who has to commute on a freeway.

How would you like it if you turned onto the freeway next time, accelerated up to 100, locked onto autopilot, cracked open your laptop, took your peepers off the road for 90-odd minutes and got nice and productive? How would you feel about being in a queue of maybe eight vehicles all with the driver similarly goofing off, with the front bumpers separated from the rears in the conga line by a mere one metre? That’s some serious tailgating.

At freeway speeds, that separation of one metre means travelling about 40 milliseconds apart – 10 times faster than the blink of an eye.

How would you like it if this were not only legal, but officially encouraged?

Before you’re moved to ask what I’ve been smoking, I just flew halfway around the world and traded sweltering humidity in Sydney for a few days of minus 15 degrees C in Sweden to talk to a very bight boy named Jonas Ekmark about exactly this. He didn’t appear to be pulling my leg, but you know the Swedes.

Ekmark has a master’s degree in science and is Volvo’s ‘Active Safety Hub Leader’, whatever that means. He’s working across a range of pretty advanced technologies on this high-speed conga-line/autopilot project, called ‘platooning’, which is being funded by the European Union. He says there will be a working example of platooning technology next year, and it’ll be in use in Europe from 2018. Very Orwellian.

It works like this: A ‘platoon’ is made up of a lead vehicle – probably a bus or other heavy vehicle driven by a suitably professional driver. Up to six or eight drone vehicles make up the followers. There’s a high-speed wireless data connection between all the vehicles (think: WiFi at 100 kays an hour, and no control-alt-delete option). The WiFi – which will probably be ‘failsafed’ by radar or even optical sensors – will make it possible for the lead vehicle to perform an emergency brake application without the subsequent domino effect of rear-enders consuming the followers in mayhem.

The real beauty of Volvo’s take on autopiloting for the road is, of course, that you don’t need hi-tech sensors in the roadway for guidance and the massive infrastructure spend that would entail.

So, the benefits: Ekmark says fuel consumption will drop by 20 per cent, thanks to the proximity of the vehicles breaking up the airstream, slashing overall aerodynamic drag. He also claims it will reduce congestion by freeing up plenty of freeway ‘real estate’ normally devoted to the safe separation between individually piloted vehicles. Finally, Ekmark says platooning will be safer than normal driving on freeways – provided the right professional drivers are up the pointy end of the platoon.

Speaking of the pointy end, what’s in it for the lead driver? Well, nothing in life is free, and Ekmark envisages a “small toll” being payable – electronically, of course – for the privilege of being chauffered along, albeit remotely.

Joining a platoon will be done from the rear. As you approach, you just hit the ‘begin docking sequence’ button and the car will close up the gap and start steering, accelerating and braking on your behalf. Cue the Blackberry, and you’ll be catching up on all those pesky e-mails all the way to work and half the way home.

Leaving the platoon will mean indicating and departing the lane, whereupon all the remaining vehicles will move up to fill the void left by your departure.

Of course, platooning is a game older vehicles won’t get to play, what with being devoid of radar, high-speed WiFi and remote control brakes, throttle and steering. Add to this the average age of Australian vehicles – nine-point-something, bordering on 10 years – and it’ll be a long time before we Aussies are making like the fabled Pig Pen and Rubber Duck during a 21st Century rolling remake of C.W. McCall’s classic 1975 hit, Convoy.

But I’m really looking forward to it when it does lob here. Using the laptop instead of being bored senseless I could write my next story in the space of 100 kays or so, then have brekky and watch a DVD. Become a serial pest by e-mail or SMS – especially to people who can’t yet platoon. But there are caveats, limits to what you can do behind the wheel, even when you aren’t, technically driving: “It probably won’t be okay to sleep,” says Ekmark.