Nissan has used robots to demonstrate technology that can increase road traffic, but reduce jams and the risk of collisions.
The robots, shown at the CEATEC Japan 2009 technology show, were developed from studies of the way that schools of fish move: think thousands of fish swimming together and changing direction in one fluid movement.
Robots mimic fish
Nissan's robots can mimic this behaviour to move in a tight pack without bumping into each other, maintaining a fixed spacing, and altering their formation to tackle obstacles.
In open spaces they move in a group, but when they encounter a narrower route to be negotiated, such as a switch from dual carriageway to a conventional two-way road, they slot into a single line, while still maintaining their original spacing.
More traffic, fewer collisions
The robots use ultra wide-band communications, laser range finding and beacons on the road to warn of changing conditions. Nissan says the system would enable much greater traffic densities, while at the same time avoiding collisions at junctions and other accident black spots.
Robot technology already in use
It might sound futuristic, but simplified applications of the robot technology are already being used in production vehicles. We drove an Infiniti fitted with the company's 'Navigation-Cooperative Intelligent Pedal' (NCIP) system.
This system uses a laser rangefinder to apply the car's brakes when it detects another vehicle or obstruction ahead. The car's accelerator moves up under the driver's foot to indicate slowing, before bringing the vehicle to a halt when the accelerator is released.
NCIP can also work with the car's sat-nav system to provide greater safety, adapting the driving characteristics of the car to the road layout and prevailing conditions.
Drink-drive detection technology
Other technology on show included systems to detect drowsiness, and an anti-drink-driving technology based on detection of alcohol in the driver's sweat.
A sensor in the top of the automatic gearshift measures your alcohol levels, and if they're too high the lever locks, preventing the car being driven.
No, we didn't test it with a few Kirin beers that hand-cleaner seen everywhere in Japan as a measure against swine flu put enough alcohol on our palms to trigger the system!