Seemingly uncertain about which side of the (private) road it should be driving on, researchers of Robotic technology at Oxford University's Department of Engineering Science have demonstrated to BBC and other media a Nissan Leaf that can 'auto drive' for parts of a journey, to take the strain off drivers during a busy commute or school run.
The low cost solution offers to take over control only for familiar routes that the system has already learned from previous journeys.
Low cost using 3D laser mapping rather than GPS to naviagte a familiar route
The university's Mobile Robotics Group has developed a prototype low-cost navigation system, controlled from an iPad, to recognise its surroundings using small cameras and lasers built into the body of the adapted electric road car.
The car's dashboard shows a prompt offering the driver an option for the car to take over. Touching the screen the car switches to 'auto drive' for the robotic system to take over. At any time a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver.
"We are working on a low-cost 'auto drive' navigation system, that doesn't depend on GPS, done with discreet sensors that are getting cheaper all the time." said Professor Paul Newman of Oxford University's Department of Engineering Science, an EPSRC Leadership Fellow who is leading the research alongside Oxford's Dr Ingmar Posner.
"It's easy to imagine that this kind of technology could be in a car you could buy".
"Instead of imagining some cars driving themselves all of the time we should imagine a time when all cars can drive themselves some of the time,' said Professor Newman. "The sort of very low cost, low footprint autonomy we are developing is what’s needed for everyday use."
According to the researchers, Global Positioning System based systems cannot provide anything like the coverage, precision, and reliability autonomous cars need to safely navigate, and, crucially, GPS fails to tell a robotic car anything about its surroundings.
"Our approach is made possible because of advances in 3D laser mapping that enable an affordable car-based robotic system to rapidly build up a detailed picture of its surroundings," said Professor Newman. "Because our cities don't change very quickly robotic vehicles will know and look out for familiar structures as they pass by so that they can ask a human driver 'I know this route, do you want me to drive?' and the driver can choose to let the technology take over.'"
At the moment it is estimated that the prototype navigation system costs around £5,000. "Long-term, our goal is to produce a system costing around £100" says Professor Newman.
Next stage of research wil lbe a robotic system capable of understanding complex traffic flows
The technology is being tested at Begbroke Science Park, near Oxford. The next stage of the research, led by Dr Ingmar Posner, will involve enabling the new robotic system to understand complex traffic flows and make decisions on its own about which routes to take.
The Oxford research is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The cars for the research, and support for them, are being provided by Nissan.
Been tried for 30 years but will people accept the idea of driverless cars?
BBC News and other media featured the demonstration last week, comparing theb system with a 1981 Tomorrow's World feature on a driverless vehicle, Google's 300,000 mile driverless clocking so far in testing and small sample of consumer reaction to the idea.