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Autonomy In Oxford

Autonomy In Oxford

Over the last couple of years there has been much talk and some demonstration of the so-called autonomous car – cars that drive themselves. The thinking is that we don’t really like driving at all and is a function best left to the vehicle itself. Once considered a sort of Jetson’s science fiction, the reality is now coming closer.

Boffins at Oxford University, amongst others around the world, have been working on this for some time. Up to now they have only been able to test their experiment on private roads at the Begbroke Science Park but David Willetts MP, the minister for science, has been on at the Department for Transport to relax the rules and allow testing on public roads.

This all stems from the fact that in California the operation of autonomous cars on public highways was legalised last year. The demand for this was lead by mighty Google who have been working on a fleet of computer controlled vehicles for some time and are saying they could have a viable model on the roads in just five years. Mr Willetts, who has tested the Google motor, believes that this has allowed the American company to steal a march on British efforts to develop similar transport.

As a result he has persuaded the DfT to relax the rules – although they say no final decision has been reached – and allow the Oxford RobotCar team to do the same thing. The long term strategy seems to suggest that we could see driverless cars on our streets in twenty years time. Right now the experimentation is based on a Nissan Leaf which has been suitably modified with cameras and laser sensors. An on-board computer controls all the usual functions. As with America, for now, a real human being has to be in the car as well to take control if necessary.

Although the driverless car is sure to become a reality, there is still a long way to go. We already have camera and sensor technology in the cars we buy today. What needs to be achieved with absolute certainty is the ability of the car to understand and react to all the many and various different circumstances that drivers presently encounter on a daily basis.

Once that has been achieved the next stage has to be for an autonomous vehicle to navigate its way around a route that it has never travelled before. Pre-programming is all very well but it is the unknown which brings forth the challenges faced by the scientists. The feeling is that by taking away the human element, the use of cars on the road will reduce or even potentially eliminate death and injury on the road as well as aiding fuel economy.

This can only be a good thing but whether motorists will go for it is another matter. It is clearly of no interest to politicians but a great many people enjoy the experience of piloting a car and will no doubt take great exception to being told they can’t do it. It remains to be seen if our Dear Leaders will listen. Then of course there’s the insurance…

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- who has written 474 posts on Motor Blogger.

Geoff is a freelance writer and photographer.

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