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Autonomous cars came under the spotlight in November when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took to the streets of Tokyo in an autonomous Nissan Leaf.
Nissan Vice Chairman Toshiyuki Shiga explained: "With the public road demonstration for the Autonomous Drive held in the presence of the Prime Minister, I believe that a great step has been taken towards the realization of Autonomous Drive."
Image credit: www.nissannews.com
Seeing autonomous vehicles as a potential source for the country’s future economic growth, the government has been working closely with the three major Japanese car manufacturers on creating the technology, developing the necessary infrastructure, and addressing legislation to make such cars road legal.
Despite the ongoing debate surrounding the future and safety of driverless cars, a recent Accenture survey of more than 14,000 drivers in 12 countries, found that Gen Y respondents expressed an interest in autonomous technologies.
"Combined with the increased use of connected vehicle technologies and digital services among consumers in mature markets, the high demand across the emerging world will no doubt speed up the development and influence the rollout of next-generation products and services by the global auto industry," said Luca Mentuccia, global managing director for Accenture’s Automotive practice.
Although several systems fundamental to the successful rollout of autonomous vehicles are already in series production, the cost still excludes fitment to the majority of vehicles.
In recent months several institutions have revealed some interesting alternatives to mainstream OEM developments, which seek to address the cost issues.
Low cost MRG autonomous system
A 22 member team led by Prof. Paul Newman and Dr. Ingmar Posner at Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group (MRG) has developed an autonomous navigation system at a build cost of only £5,000. Using off the shelf components, the system which is self-contained and doesn’t require beacons or other roadside infrastructure, works like a very sophisticated cruise control by taking over driving when traveling on frequently used routes.
Image credit: Daily Mail
The technology is based on "autonomous perception." That is, the car learns about the route and constantly monitors the immediate area around the car in order to make driving decisions. It doesn't use GPS because satellite navigation isn't always available and isn't accurate enough for driving. Instead, two forward facing stereo cameras are installed with two scanning lasers under the front and rear bumpers.
These sensors stream data to three onboard computers which 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 that may require human intervention.
•The iPad is monitored by a LLC (Low Level Controller)
•Most of the computations are, however, carried out by the MVC (Main Vehicle Computer) installed in the boot.
As a fail-safe, the three computers act in concert; if they disagree on a situation, the car slows and stops.
Together these sensors and computers are used to build up a three-dimensional map of the route. This is augmented using "semantic information," such as the location and type of road markings, traffic signs, traffic lights and lane information, as well as aerial images.
Only when the system has enough data and sufficient training will it offer to drive the car.
The system also uses probability and machine learning to build and calibrate mathematical models, which are used to teach it how to navigate the route. It monitors the road ahead for cars, pedestrians and obstacles by scanning 85 degrees ahead 13 times a second to a distance of 50 meters. It identifies objects, their location and movement, and will slow or stop if it encounters an obstacle. If need be, the driver can regain control by tapping the brake.
Researchers at Germany’s Technische Universitåt Mýnchen (TUM), however, are looking at taking things a step further. They’re developing remote-control cars that could travel along city streets with no one onboard; the operator stationed at a remote location.
Remote controlled autonomous vehicles
Similar to Google’s Robo-taxi in concept, the TUM researchers suggest that autonomous technology could be used to deliver rental cars or vehicles used in car-sharing programs to members’ homes, or it could be applied to city-center parking services where the vehicle would "self-park" in a remote parking garage having delivered the passenger to the chosen destination.
So far, the TUM team has equipped a prototype Visio.M electric car with six video cameras, five of which are mounted on the back of the rearview mirror (facing forwards and to the sides) and one facing out the rear window. Together, they provide a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings.
A live feed from the cameras is transmitted to a remote operator station, which resembles a driving simulator, via Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless communication. At the station, three monitors display the front and side views from the car, while a fourth displays the view out the back. Microphones aboard the car provide live Dolby 5.1 audio, while force-feedback mechanisms in the simulator’s steering wheel and brake pedal emulate the forces encountered by the car itself.
If communication is interrupted, the car automatically brakes and remains in place until communication is resumed.
The scientists claim that the system isn’t very expensive, and that the LTE networks in many cities are already capable of transmitting all the required video, audio and control data in real time.
Although issues such as legal liability still need to be addressed, the researchers expect to roll out the technology within five to ten years.
The future of autonomous vehicles
Technically, autonomous cars could be in use within the next fifteen years, however several issues need to be addressed:
•Will autonomous cars be capable of co-existing with older vehicles without C2X capability?
•Will local and national governments have the resources to fund the roadside infrastructure required?
•Will legal definitions with regard to issues such as apportionment of liability be drawn up?
The widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles may very well herald a social revolution, with traffic systems such as traffic lights, stop signs, speed restrictions and possibly even law enforcement itself made redundant.
- Accenture – Survey shows Millennials are pushing the drive for autonomous technologies
- Technische Universitåt Mýnchen – The invisible driver
- www.gizmag.com – Japanese PM climbs aboard autonomous Nissan Leaf (David Szondy)
- Oxford University - Mobile Robotics Group
- Amir Efrati – Google to build own self-driving car
Peter Els is a technical writer for Automotive IQ