Led by Professor Paul Newman and Doctor Ingmar Posner, the 20 members of the Mobile Robotics Group have developed self-drive system for cars that runs from a tablet computer.
Newman predicts self-drive technology would be standard in all mainstream cars within 15 years, and his group currently offers bestpriced system, coming it at £5,000 (some R69 000). “We are not condemned to a future of congestion and accidents. We will eventually have cars that can drive themselves, interacting safely with other road users and using roads efficiently, thus freeing up our precious time.
But to do this the “machines need life-long infrastructure-free navigation”, which aim their website lists is their real focus.
Acting like a plane on auto-pilot, the autonomous driving system is designed to take over from humans in slow-moving traffic or on a familiar route, such as a school run.
Tapping “accept” on an iPad in the dashboard allows the car’s onboard computer take the wheel and pedals.
The Brits opted not to use GPS, but 3D laser mapping.
They explained in a statement satellite navigation isn’t always available, isn’t accurate enough for driving and doesn’t provide any information about what’s going on around the robot car. Their RobotCar instead uses small cameras and lasers built into the chassis of a specially adapted Nissan Leaf.
When the car is driven manually the lasers and cameras act as its ‘eyes’, mapping a 3D model of its surroundings, which is fed into a computer stored in the boot.
These sensors feed data to the three computers that are at the heart of the autonomous driving system.
One is an iPad, which acts as the user interface. This offers to drive if the car knows the route, guides the driver to set up autonomous mode and warns of obstacles and other situations requiring human intervention. The brunt of the work is done by the Main Vehicle Computer installed in the boot. Together these sensors and computers are used to build up and “remember” a three-dimensional map in order to steer the car along familiar routes.
The three computers act in concert. If they disagree on a situation, the car slows and stops.
Newman said the group aims to get the cost of their prototype down to less than R1500 in the near future.