Driverless taxis will be carrying passengers during demonstration projects in five European cities as of February 2014.
The demonstration of so-called cybercars, by the EU-funded CityMobil2 project, is one of a number of research initiatives that are testing out specially designed self-driving road vehicles as the technology required to navigate them becomes cheaper and more reliable.
Cybercars have traditionally sensed the world through expensive gyroscopes, microwaves and laser beams. But the advent of cheap cameras and fast image-recognition algorithms has led to a new technique known as visual odometry, where a computer analyses images to determine the position and orientation of the vehicle.
It means researchers have better access to the technology required for automated vehicles, including those at the V-Charge project, a consortium of companies and universities which is working on fully automated low-speed driving in cities using only cameras and other low-cost sensors mounted on standard cars.
‘Twenty years from now, cars will be completely autonomous. And people will buy them because they are safe, and driving isn’t,’ said Professor Alberto Broggi at the University of Parma in Italy, a participant in the V-Charge project and the director of VisLab, a laboratory active in research that includes intelligent vehicles.
The project, led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), includes collaboration with the companies Bosch and Volkswagen along with the Technical University of Braunschweig, Germany, the University of Parma, Italy, and the University of Oxford, UK. The consortium is working to produce detailed maps and a perception system that allows a vehicle to recognize its location and identify nearby pedestrians and vehicles, all using only stereoscopic or fisheye cameras.
However, Prof. Broggi’s team has taken this a step further, pioneering a guidance system that works economically by using a single camera. ‘Workable sensors are already available for cybercars,’ he said. ‘We are now working on more ambitious alternatives.’
Further downstream, car manufacturers are already making automated piloting features of their own – radar-based cruise control, anti-braking systems (ABS) and lane-control assistance are spreading into the mass market.
At the same time, the cables and hydraulic pressure valves which previously linked the controls of the vehicle to its working parts are gradually being replaced with electronic circuits. This is good news for cybercars as they rely on digital signals to steer, brake and accelerate.
While companies such as Google see autonomous cars in a couple of decades, Professor Adriano Alessandrini, who coordinates the CityMobil2 project from the Sapienza University in Rome, thinks that they could be hitting the road sooner than that. ‘The vehicles are technically ready to drive themselves today,’ he said. ‘The challenge lies in their environment.’
‘Twenty years from now, cars will be completely autonomous. And people will buy them because they are safe, and driving isn’t.’
Professor Alberto Broggi, the University of Parma, Italy
The complexities of road travel remain daunting for current computers. But Professor Alessandrini believes that, in addition to teaching cars to respond autonomously to traffic conditions, traffic should be adapted to automated cars.
‘In their current state of development, cybercars could already drive safely in pedestrian areas and designated lanes,’ he said.
He also believes that automated vehicles are potentially more economical than conventional public transport systems. However, investors are at present deterred by their high initial investment and perceived risks.
That’s why they are being implemented in small stages. The first CityMobil project shuttled passengers across the car park of London Heathrow airport in a fleet of driverless pods. Its successor, CityMobil2, now brings specially designed automated vehicles to designated roads inside the city centre.
The project plans to procure two sets of automated vehicles which will tour five cities in a series of demonstration projects each lasting six to eight months.
Legislators remain concerned by issues of safety and responsibility. Road accidents are the primary cause of mortality among Europeans aged 15 to 29. But Prof. Alessandrini argues that cybercars should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat, and with appropriate legislation and standards for driving conditions, they could help reduce those numbers.
That is why CityMobil2 is bringing together experts from ministries in each member state to agree on technical requirements by the time the project concludes in 2016 that could feed into a future European directive on the issue.
For the not-too-distant future, Prof. Alessandrini foresees neighbourhood fleets of the driverless vehicles shuttling commuters to centralised transport hubs where they could then pick up existing transport infrastructure. ‘Our ultimate goal is to automate mobility, not just vehicles,’ he said.
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