Robotic driving system used to control Nissan Leaf

UK researchers have shown off a robotic self-driving car system in a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

The team from Oxford University developed the technology as a way to bring robotic driving systems into the mainstream by offering respite from a difficult regular commute rather than suggesting the system take over driving completely.

The system, which can be controlled via an iPad, will offer the option of taking over part of a familiar route and then carry out all navigation, steering and acceleration but return control as soon as the driver touches the brake pedal.

‘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 Oxford’s Professor Paul Newman in a statement.

‘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. The sort of very low cost, low footprint autonomy we are developing is what’s needed for everyday use.’

The researchers decided to avoid using GPS because they felt it could not provide the coverage, precision, and reliability autonomous cars need to safely navigate and doesn’t give enough information about the car’s 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 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.’

The prototype navigation system, currently being tested at its base at Begbroke Science Park, near Oxford, costs around £5,000 but the researchers hope to bring that down to £100.

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.

‘Whilst our technology won’t be in a car showroom near you any time soon, and there’s lots more work to do, it shows the potential for this kind of affordable robotic system that could make our car journeys safer, more efficient, and more pleasant for drivers,’ said Newman.

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.