As engineers, one of our biggest challenges is to lower costs. Being able to prove concepts with a nice, large budget and having access to sophisticated sensors and mechanisms is great, but ultimately, if humanity, or at least the consumer, is to benefit from our work, we will have to find a way to make it cheap, simple, and with the same reliability as the "fancy" version.
Google, using its substantial surpluses of money, can afford to attempt fully automated vehicles with 360-degree rotating scanners and state-of-the-art LIDAR totaling around $70,000. Researchers from the Oxford Mobile Robotics Group are building a cheaper version that can use sensors in smart ways to minimize cost and ultimately increase availability. As opposed to the autonomous cars of Google and Audi, the Oxford group has found a method for using cheap sensors with an adequate computer network and architecture to do the many jobs an autocar can do.
The sensory and autonomic systems that make up Oxford’s autocar, named RobotCar, seem remarkably simple. The Oxford team has created a car with two laser scanners under the front bumper with an 85-degree f.o.v. and a pair of stereo cameras, which continuously analyze and memorize environments. After a few weeks of study, it learns to navigate your morning commute, slowly learning more and more over time.
The scanning system sees obstacles 164 feet in front of the car, and it will not proceed until the roadway is clear. It also anticipates movements, like pedestrians crossing the road. The system is not dependent on GPS, because it's less than ideal for an autonomous car. RobotCar needs accuracy within centimeters in all weather conditions, and in indoor or subterranean parking garages, etc. In addition, the team is not counting on big infrastructure additions to accommodate RobotCar. Instead, the car can “see” road and lane markings, traffic lights and signs, and even accesses aerial views.
The car thinks, using three computer systems. The Main Vehicle Computer (MVC) can control all the car’s systems including sensory and automotive, of course, and oversees communication between the Lower Level Control (LLC) and an iPad mounted on the dash. When the car’s MVC recognizes a route, it asks the driver to take over with a prompt on the dashboard iPad. If there is any discrepancy between any of the three computers, the car will not ask to drive, and if the drive does not respond to the prompt at all, the car will slow to a halt. At any time while the car is in motion, the driver can tap the breaks, to instantly regain control.
The 22-man Oxford team envisions a future where cars earn more driving responsibilities little by little, doing more detailed and sophisticated work by themselves. Combining this philosophy with a cost as low as $150, RobotCar could potentially revolutionize the auto industry. The group wants to develop cars that offer autonomous features for an additional cost, low enough for middle class incomes to afford -- a situation similar to the Ford Model T's but taking the automobile to a whole new level in the 21st century.
It will be interesting to see how autonomy alone influences car sales. It may not be the flying car of the future, but a fully automated fleet might let us fly through commonly congested corridors. This dream is still far off, and there will be a time when humans and RobotCars share the roads. What will become of road rage?
The research group is already testing RobotCar on private roads near the Begbroke Science Park near Oxfordshire and is in talks with the British department of transportations for testing on public streets.
To watch more videos, go to YouTube and search "RobotCar UK."
There always seems to be resistance to safety restraints on vehicles, Chuck. I remember how we hated seat belts at first. Now, it's clear they were very good at saving lives. We Americans love to be in control of our vehicles. But if it could be demonstrated that RobotCars save lives, we're go for it. There also may be a generational aspect to it. I think young people would gladly give up some of their autonomy behind the wheel if it meant more time on their phones.
As for affordability, Elizabeth, there may be some safety technology in the RobotCar that could become standard in all vehicles -- much like the seatbelt and airbags which we accept as part of the cost of owning a vehicle.
Interesting that so many folks tend to think that the robotic car will improve safety, without realizing that the robotic car will reduce efficiency a whole lot, because the robotic car will not be able to think. The car will stop for a cardboard box in the roadway rather than going around it, and it will probably stop for a coat hung over a sign alongside the roadway, if that coat is blowing in a breeze. And there is no way that a robotic car would be able to swerve and miss a person running across a roadway. The point here is that the programs will not be able to handle exceptions, but will rather, at best, become paralyzed, and stop. WE will all recognize, when we stop and think about it, that all autonomous car software will be written with the primary goal of protecting the sellers from any possible liabilities in the event of an accident of any kind. Thus the control algorithms will all be quite fearful and neurotic, the two qualities that make for the worlds most irritatinly slow drivers. So while an autonomous system could be a great idea for military vehicles it looks to me like they are a very poor choice for driving in the general urbal area.
A far better choice would be to develop systems to assist the drivers in being aware of hazards. The other action that would improve the safety of our raodways the very most would be to remove those 5% of thew drivers who aresimply not able to drive safely. The problem, at least here in Michigan, is that the main requiremen tfor becoming a licensed driver is having the fee required to obtain a drivers license. The ability to pay attention to the task of driving, and the skills to make the correct decisions quickly, are neither required nor tested for. That is a big problem.
If we don't fix the trend toward bringing more electronic junk into the car, we will need autonomous cars. The National Transportation Safety Board is still pushing to get rid of all phones in the car, whether or not they are hands-free and Bluetooth-enabled, but consumer groups ar fighting back. Talking to industry engineers recently, I even heard that drivers in Asia are now starting to watch TVs in the front seat (more about that in a couple of days). If trends like that continue, the autonomous car will be a must.
Charles, actually, thye way to getrid of the problem of drivers watching television while driving would be for the TV to disable the airbags and release the seatbelt latches. That would do a bit towards making certain that the consequences of TV watching were directed back towards the drivers. And it would not be any big deal if the drivers are only watching TV while stopped in some of those notorious Tokyo traffic jam-ups. Of course it would be fairly simple to observe drivers watching television, just look at them as they pass under a bridge. I saw a seatbelt survey done that way back in the mid 1970's and it did seem to be getting very good data. The main tool is a set of wide field medium magnification binoculars. That and a tracking camers coupled with a means to trigger the picture recording, and there is an enforcement unit, working from the comfort and safety of an overhead bridge.
But of course there is so very much money to be made from cellphone using drivers that it will be much harder to regulate than cigarettes ever were, since the phone companies have a lot more money to spend.
One potential cure could be devices to disrupt cellular connections located every half mile along the expressways. Probably not legal, but probably quite effective.
Now that would be a good precedent, and something worthwhile for both affordability and safety to come out of this type of development. I understand sometimes these features are trial and error and need to become standard over time.
I checked with the National Highway Traffic Administration, William K, and they said there is currently no law per se against watching TV while driving. So now we have a very odd situation: Using a handheld phone while driving is illegal in many locales, but watching TV isn't, at least at the federal level. More about this tomorrow.
Having the driver watch TV while driving is, or at least WAS, illegal in Michigan. That might have changed, since it is no more dangerous than drunk driving. And, amazingly enough, the civil liberties people have not come out in strong defense of drunk drivers. It is amazing based on all of the other dumb things that they do.
You're right, Elizabeth, many of these new developments will not hold their own over time. Remember the push button shift for the automatic transmission? That was seen as an advance when it came out on the Edsel. That certainly didn't catch on.
In a line of ultra-futuristic projects, DARPA is developing a brain microchip that will help heal the bodies and minds of soldiers. A final product is far off, but preliminary chips are already being tested.
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