How the robot cars are on the rise

Any learner driver struggling with parking manoeuvres dreams of a car that can park itself. For learners living in the US states of Nevada, Florida and California this futuristic dream could soon become a reality. The Google driverless car [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_driverless_car] has recently undergone thousands of hours of testing on the roads in busy city traffic in America to pass the legal requirements for road vehicles.

The robot car, which is a modified Toyota Prius, is the result of a project led by Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, who was also involved in Google Street View. The self-driving car’s brakes and accelerators are connected to computers.

Using a GPS system the car can keep to the recorded speed limits in any area and maintains a safe distance from other road users with a system of sensors. The car uses a laser radar system called Lidar which detects any obstacles the car may encounter on the road. Rather like with cruise control the human driver can take control of the car at any time simply by taking the steering wheel or touching the brakes.

Here in the UK, Professor Paul Newman is leading a team in modifying the Nissan LEAF electric car into a driverless car. The technology differs from the Google modified Toyota Prius; it does not rely on GPS. The reasoning behind this decision is that while GPS can tell you what road and route the car is on, it cannot tell what side of the road the car is driving on. A safety measure you don’t need to have a license to know is necessary to avoid accidents.

The modified Nissan Leaf also doesn’t use the sensor laser system Lidar. Instead the Oxford project uses cameras and lasers for scene recognition. The live scenery is linked to a pre-existing database which works out where the car is, where it needs to go and helps it avoid any collisions. This means the car would only be able to go on routes it has been on before and you use regularly, such as the daily work commute.

The people behind the self-driving car projects claim that a future of driverless cars is a safer one on the roads. With distractions such as mobile phone use or sleepiness causing, in some cases, severe crashes the possibility of a car that can respond immediately to any unexpected obstacle rather than wait for a human driver to react could reduce car accidents. Another case for the driverless car is the independence they could provide for people with disabilities or only partial sight.

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