Self-driving technology tested in Oxfordshire

20th February 2013

Those in the motoring world have potentially been shown the future, after a self-driving car was given a test run in the UK.

An event based at Oxford University witnessed a vehicle navigating itself around a series of familiar routes, without a driver ever needing to turn the motor's steering wheel or press on the brakes when a potential hazard was spotted.

The entire arrangement was sampled at a specially-made environment at Begbroke Science Park in Oxfordshire, which was set up to represent normal driving conditions.

Professor Paul Newman, from Oxford University's department of engineering science, explained to the BBC: "It's not like a racetrack – it's a light industrial site with roads and road markings. Crucial for us, it can show our navigation and control system working.

"It's not depending on GPS, digging up the roads or anything like that – it's just the vehicles knowing where they are because they recognise their surroundings."

Deemed the Oxford RobotCar UK project, the self-driving technology involves a vehicle being fitted with a collection of lasers andminuscule cameras.

These items work together to memorise regular journeys such as a commute to and from work or a school run, with the vehicle given the opportunity to "take over" driving anytime a familiar route is recognised.

Professor Newman, who is working on the technology alongside Oxford University's machine learning specialist Dr Ingmar Posner, underlined: "The key word for us is that the car gains 'experiences'.

"The car is driven by a human, and it builds a 3D model of its environment."

Even the way that the technology communicates to a driver that it is ready to take over is done with state-of-the-art systems in mind, as the prompts come from an iPad built into the self-driving car's dashboard.

Professor Newman noted: "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."

One of the main barriers that is preventing self-driving vehicles from becoming a standard feature on real-life roads, however, is current UK driving laws.

However, professor Newman stressed that those associated with the Oxford RobotCar UK project are in contact with the Department of Transport to try and find a way of giving its self-driving vehicles some much needed mileage across British roads.

Until this comes to fruition though, the BBC's transport correspondent, Richard Westcott, stated that there is plenty of promise coming out of the test run at Begbroke Science Park.

"It's amazing how quickly you adjust to things. Within five minutes I'd got used to the wheel turning on its own, and I wasn't remotely concerned when someone walked out in front of us," Mr Westcott commented after experiencing firsthand the feeling of being in a self-driving vehicle.

While the BBC correspondent was keen to stress that he cannot foresee autonomous cars making their way to showrooms across the UK anytime soon, he added that "it seems inevitable we will be handing over more of the driving to computers as the years roll by, and this Oxford University system could well be the next step".

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Posted by The potential of self-driving vehicles has been shown off at Begbroke Science Park in Oxfordshire