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Robot car learns as it travels

posted 10 Oct 2011, 14:09 by Mpelembe   [ updated 10 Oct 2011, 14:09 ]

A robotic car under development at Oxford University, interprets its surroundings and makes decisions about where to go. The scientists behind it say the technology could eliminate the agony and cost of traffic jams.

OXFORD, ENGLAND, UK  (OXFORD UNIVERSITY) - A team of engineers at Oxford University say their robotic car technology could eliminate the agony and cost of traffic jams by learning about its surroundings.

Whilst human drivers might use Global Positioning System (GPS) to find their way, the team say that is not accurate enough to give a vehicle genuine autonomy. They say GPS fails to tell a robotic car anything about what surrounds it; its proximity to obstacles, other cars, pedestrians, or their intentions.

Professor Paul Newman, who leads the Oxford Mobile Robotics Group, part of the Engineering Science department, says he wants to be able to trust the car in which he's travelling.

"You see GPS is good to maybe 10, 15 metres, if you're lucky maybe five and it certainly wont work in big cities, it certainly wont work in the middle of multi-storey car parks and even then I wouldn't want to be going around a roundabout at 30 miles an hour (50kph) in a car that only knew where it was to a few metres," said Newman.

The new technology, which Oxford researchers have now installed on a prototype vehicle, is set to remove the dependence on GPS, improve navigation precision, lower emissions, interpret local traffic conditions, track risks, and above all offer a hands-free experience to the driver. All this by interpreting a flood of data from sensors such as cameras, radars, and lasers mounted on the car itself.

"We waste so much of our time driving when we dont want to be driving when we could be doing other things, improving our quality of life. So the big point here, it's not that cars drive themselves all the time, it's cars that mean that you dont have to drive all the time and that's exciting," said Newman.

A recent UK government report suggests the cost to business of road congestion is likely to rise to more than £20 billion a year within the next 15 years.

Whilst increasing public transport capacity may help, government experts believe that, with people unwilling to give up the independence cars provide, autonomous vehicles that make road journeys safer and more efficient could be crucial to keeping Britain moving.

Unlike industrial robots in factory and port facilities, useful autonomous cars cannot rely on embedded infrastructure, such as reflective beacons and guide wires to navigate, that are impractical, inconvenient and expensive to install and require modifying our roads and cities.

The Oxford research is not the first to attempt to create an autonomous vehicle that can go anywhere and deal with all the situations it might encounter on the open road. Last year, a group of scientists and engineers travelled from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China in two, driverless electric vans, and students from Berlin are still perfecting their version of a driverless car as well.

It may not be long before hand-free driving becomes the rule rather than the exception.