New milestone in the life of the 'auto-drive Robotcar'

The Department of Engineering Science Mobile Robotics Group, led by Professor Paul Newman and Dr Ingmar Posner, recently announced the development of a new navigation system that enables a car to ‘drive itself’ for stretches of a route – taking the strain off drivers during a busy commute or school run.

Leaf Car
Image courtesy of John Cairns
This robotic technology, which was tested on a Nissan Leaf electric car, is controlled from an iPad on the dashboard that flashes up a prompt offering the driver the option of the car taking over for a portion of a familiar route – touching the screen then switches to 'auto drive' where the robotic system takes over. At any time a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver.

Professor Newman said: “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. It's easy to imagine that this kind of technology could be in a car you could buy”.

Leaf Car with Prof Paul Newman
Image courtesy of John Cairns
He added: “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. 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”.

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," said Professor Newman.

Autonomous navigation systems, such as the one being developed by the Department’s Mobile Robotics Group, are likely to be the next big step towards revolutionising the driving experience.

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 there are many hurdles to overcome the long-term goal is to take such a system onto public roads.

Our thanks to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for funding this research, and to Nissan for providing support and the cars for the research.

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