Using a specially adapted Nissan Leaf electric car, a team at Oxford University is conducting tests of robotic technology.
The work is another 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 can recognise 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 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.
The research is being led by Dr Ingmar Posner and Professor Paul Newman of Oxford University’s engineering science department.
Prof Newman, 40, said today: “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.
“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. The sort of very low-cost, low-footprint autonomy we are developing is what’s needed for everyday use.”
At the moment the prototype navigation system costs around £5,000. “Long-term, our goal is to produce a system costing around £100,” said Prof Newman.
The next stage of the research, led by Dr Posner, will involve enabling the new robotic system to understand complex traffic flows and make decisions on its own about which routes to take. The long-term goal is to take such a system on to public roads.
Prof Newman added: “While our technology won’t be in a car showroom near you any time soon, and there’s lots more work to do, it shows the potential for this kind of affordable robotic system that could make our car journeys safer, more efficient and more pleasant for drivers.”