London: Oxford scientists have unveiled a 'sci-fi' robot car that can drive on its own just with the help of a tablet computer.
The work is a milestone on the way to creating everyday vehicles that can offer 'auto drive' for some parts of a journey, taking the strain off drivers during a busy commute or school run.
The low-cost navigation system recognises its surroundings using small cameras and lasers discreetly built into the body of the adapted electric road car and linked to a computer in the boot.
The new car gives a glimpse of what the driver's experience of an auto drive-enabled car of the future might be like: the technology 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.
"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," said Professor Paul Newman of Oxford University's Department of Engineering Science.
"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 Newman in a statement.
Some automated technology, for vehicles that 'park themselves' or react to changing road conditions, has already found its way into production road cars.
Autonomous navigation systems, such as the one being developed at Oxford, are likely to be the next big step towards revolutionising the driving experience.
Whilst human drivers might use Global Positioning System (GPS) to find their way, such 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 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," he said.
At the moment it is estimated that the prototype navigation system costs around 5,000 pounds.
"Long-term, our goal is to produce a system costing around 100 pounds," said Newman.
First Published: Friday, February 15, 2013, 16:01