After 2 busy weeks attending the Internet Measurement Conference in Boston and spending Thanksgiving with my girlfriend, I am back to my blog. Today I wanted to share something very cool I read about on my train ride from Boston back to NYC: the cars of the future. What I really like about this technology is that it is not about flying cars or the “airbag” from Demolition Man (one of the best and most hilarious action movies ever). Instead, this is abut something feasible that is being tested already: vehicle platoons.

From IEEE Spectrum: All Aboard the Robotic Road Train

[…] To get the best of both worlds, we could teach our cars to work together, as closely grouped cyclists do in a peloton. The lead car could be entrusted to a professional driver to whom the other drivers would of course each pay a small fee; all the other cars would follow it automatically. The cars would all use networked communications coupled with the optical or electromagnetic sensors already installed in some luxury cars to avoid head-on collision, stay in the proper lane, and brake in case of emergency. These systems have been developed at great expense to provide active safety, as distinguished from the passive kind afforded by seat belts. But this investment, having been made, can now be exploited for other things—like allowing you to relax and read the paper. If only we’d let them.


None of our requirements are outlandish, yet they do define the problem narrowly enough to make it solvable with existing technology. We implemented a limited number of critical platoon scenarios representing how the cars interact—for instance, Join Platoon, Maintain Platoon, Leave Platoon, and Dissolve Platoon. Anyone joining the platoon would normally do so at the rear, but we could allow for someone to join in the middle by enabling the controlling system to tell one member of the pack and those following it to slow down, thus opening up a space.

These transitions to and from automatic driving are crucial because a driver should never be unsure whether he or the lead car is in control. To avoid any such uncertainty, we have chosen to coordinate these transitions with a user interface that, although new, will still be familiar to drivers because it is based on the existing ones in active cruise control systems.

To join from the rear, a driver would send a request to the lead vehicle, get confirmation, approach the platoon from behind, and then put the car into semiautomatic mode, in which braking and accelerating is automatic and the steering is still manual. This ensures that the driver will pay full attention to traffic in case anything unusual happens. Only when the car is locked into the determined following distance does lateral control pass to the automatic system. An indication of the change appears on the car’s display, accompanied by a voice message, letting the driver know that he can release the steering wheel, lean back, and just enjoy the ride.

Really cool. And it reminds me to Minority Report highways (both those “horizontal” and the “vertical” ones on the walls of the buildings), where the driver is attached to a platoon until it pulls over. And if something reminds me to Minority Report, I like it.