BMW to test autonomous cars on the autobahn
Collaboration with Continental works toward ‘accident-free’ driving, while British researchers seek to reduce the cost of self-driving cars.
The technology is designed to not only control a car in highway traffic, but also stop it and warn others if, for example, the human co-pilot has a medical emergency.
According to BMW and Continental, in addition to creating “opportunities for significantly improved convenience and efficiency,” the primary goal for the project is to achieve “accident-free mobility” for motorists and “safety for all.”
Or, at least for those who can afford a BMW equipped with tons of technology.
For those who can’t, Oxford University researchers in England are testing a self-driving Nissan Leaf that’s controlled by an Apple iPad and guided by a low-cost navigation system that researchers hope to someday make available for just $150. More on that below.
The joint project between BMW and Continental is scheduled to run from early 2013 to the end of 2014. During that time, several prototype vehicles capable of “highly automated operation” will be developed to operate on German and European motorways. A group of trained drivers will test the vehicles so that they undergo “typical challenges” such as entering and exiting motorways, toll stations and road construction areas.
Both BMW and Continental have separately pursued autonomous driving. In 2011, a BMW test vehicle drove itself on a motorway between Munich and Nuremberg. The prototype vehicle has since clocked more than 6,000 miles using lidar, radar and ultrasound sensors as well as cameras to accurately position itself in traffic lanes and recognize other vehicles and objects in the immediate vicinity. It's able to autonomously brake, accelerate and overtake other vehicles while also adapting to traffic flow and following posted laws -- which is more than some human drivers can do.
The principal technologies the vehicles use are BMW TrackTrainer and Emergency Stop Assistant. Using precise digital mapping, GPS and video data, TrackTrainer autonomously navigates a vehicle around a racing circuit following an ideal “racing line.” In October 2009, TrackTrainer was used to guide a 3-Series around the North Loop of Germany’s infamous Nürburgring test track, and also Laguna Seca Raceway in California in 2011.
Emergency Stop Assistant is a safeguard in case a driver has a medical emergency on a public road. If biosensors embedded in the vehicle detect that the driver is having a heart attack, for example, Emergency Stop Assistant activates a self-driving mode and, taking into account the traffic situation, brings the vehicle slowly and safely to a stop on the nearest shoulder. It also triggers hazard warning lights and automatically initiates an emergency call to request medical assistance and notify the authorities.
For its part, Continental was recently the first automotive supplier -- and the second entity behind Google -- to obtain an autonomous-car license from Nevada. The company has put more than 15,000 miles on the autonomous-driving Volkswagen Passat that received the license plate from Nevada and also gave joyrides in the car to media at the recent Chicago Auto Show.
But it’s not just automakers and their suppliers making strides on autonomous cars, as Google and Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research have shown. Researchers at Oxford University have proved you don't need deep pockets to get this technology.
Their Nissan Leaf is self-piloted by a low-cost navigation system that assesses its surroundings using cameras and lasers that are inconspicuously integrated into the body, and it’s all controlled by an iPad in the dash. The iPad can issue a prompt to offer the driver the opportunity take the wheel for portion of a route, and touching the screen switches back to autonomous mode.
The Oxford research team is testing the technology at a track and will next work on allowing it to comprehend complicated traffic flows and decide the best routes to take. The researchers say that the estimated costs of the current prototype self-driving navigation systems is less than $8,000. “Long-term, our goal is to produce a system costing around [$151],” said Professor Paul Newman, co-leader of the project.
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