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Oxford University’s ‘RobotCar’ is vehicle autonomy on a budget

Robotcar side view

We’ve been talking a lot about vehicle autonomy lately. Both Google and Audi have fully autonomous vehicles cruising the Nevada highways and byways, while Lexus presses on with its own autonomous vehicle program. We figured, though, given the level of specialized and expensive technology onboard each vehicle that full automotive autonomy was a ways off.

Turns out we were wrong, very wrong.

A team of scientists at Oxford University have created an inexpensive vehicle autonomy system operated from a dash-mounted iPad. It’s called “RobotCar,” according to a Phys.org report. What the Brits lack in marketing creativity they more than make up for in ingenuity and frugality.

The system as it currently stands costs around $7750. The team hopes, however, to get the price as low as $150 within a few years, making it widely accessible.

The system is designed to take over vehicle operation on routine driving routes, like from home to work and back. RobotCar makes a 3D map of its surroundings with forward facing lasers and stereo cameras mounted on the front of the car. The mapping and information gathered is sent to the Main Vehicle Computer mounted in the trunk. The third computer, the Low Level Controller (LLC), communicates directly with the iPad, which delivers both information and commands to the driver.

RobotCar, unlike other autonomous vehicle systems, does not rely on GPS whatsoever. Not only does the system 3D map roadways and drive routes, it also watches for pedestrians, cars, and other obstacles in the road. Should RobotCar detect an obstacle in the road like a pedestrian, it will slow the vehicle until the obstacle has left the road. When the path is clear, RobotCar will bring the vehicle back to speed.

At any point, should a conflict arise between the three system computers, RobotCar will relinquish vehicle control to the driver with a message on the iPad. Should the driver not respond or regain control, RobotCar will bring the vehicle to a gradual stop. Just like today’s cruise control systems, the driver can retake vehicle control with a quick tap of the brake pedal.

The Oxford team expects automakers will be installing RobotCar into new vehicles within the next 15 years, which arguably isn’t as soon as some automakers have predicted,  but it is, nonetheless, sooner than we anticipated for full vehicle autonomy.

Should the team find ways to get the RobotCar component costs down anywhere near to the $150 range, it could be a real game changer for the entire automotive industry. We’ve been a bit wary of autonomous vehicle technology but with the giant leaps and bounds forward in recent years, we can’t wait to try it for ourselves.

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