Self-driving car given UK test run at Oxford University

The BBC's Richard Westcott tests out the self-driving car

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A car that is able to drive itself on familiar routes has been shown off at an event at Oxford University.

The technology uses lasers and small cameras to memorise regular journeys like the commute or the school run.

The engineers and researchers behind the project are aiming to produce a low-cost system that "takes the strain" off drivers.

Other companies, such as Google, have also been testing driverless vehicle technology.

The search giant has pushed for law changes in California to allow its car to be tried out in real-life situations.

The Oxford RobotCar UK project is seeking to do the same in the UK, said Prof Paul Newman from Oxford University's department of engineering science.

"We're working with the Department of Transport to get some miles on the road in the UK," said Prof Newman, who is working alongside machine learning specialist Dr Ingmar Posner.

Gaining 'experiences'

Until the car can hit the streets, the team is testing it out in a specially-made environment at Begbroke Science Park in Oxfordshire.

Analysis

Frankly, it is a bit disconcerting being driven around by a robotic chauffeur, but then I remember thinking the same thing when I first used cruise control on a motorway.

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 (it was a tightly controlled safety experiment before anyone emails in, and the car did stop in plenty of time).

Fully autonomous cars won't appear in showrooms overnight. But 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.

There are barriers of course. Makers will have to prove they are safe. Then they'll have to convince the public. And there's the sticky question of who's liable if there's a crash.

Still, most car crashes are down to the human at the wheel. Plenty of people believe robotic cars could save thousands of lives in the future.

"It's not like a racetrack - it's a light industrial site with roads and road markings," Prof Newman told the BBC.

"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."

The technology allows the car to "take over" when driving on routes it has already travelled.

"The key word for us is that the car gains 'experiences'," Prof Newman explained.

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

When it goes on the same journey again, an iPad built into the dashboard gives a prompt to the driver - offering to let the computer "take the wheel".

"Touching the screen then switches to 'auto drive' where the robotic system takes over, Prof Newman added.

"At any time, a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver."

Spinning lasers

At the moment, the complete system costs around £5,000 - but Prof Newman hopes that future models will bring the price of the technology down to as low as £100.

Autonomous technology is being tested by several car manufacturers and technology companies.

Simple self-driving tasks, such as cars that can park themselves, are already in use across the industry.

The Holy Grail is a fully-autonomous vehicle that is location-aware, safe and affordable.

An iPad display in the self-driving car The iPad display tells the driver when the car is able to take over

Google has been testing its car for several years, with the company boasting of 300,000 computer-driven miles without an accident.

While at an earlier stage of development, Oxford University's car has significant key differences to Google's offering, Prof Newman said.

"Well if you look at it, we don't need a 3D laser spinning on the roof that's really expensive - so that's one thing straight away. I think our car has a lower profile."

He added: "Our approach is made possible because of advances in 3D laser mapping that enable an affordable car-based robotic system to rapidly build up a detailed picture of its surroundings.

"Because our cities don't change very quickly, robotic vehicles will know and look out for familiar structures as they pass by so that they can ask a human driver 'I know this route, do you want me to drive?'"

Prof Newman applauded Google's efforts in innovating in the space - but was buoyant about the role British expertise could have in the industry.

"This is all UK intellectual property, getting into the [driverless car] race.

"I would be astounded if we don't see this kind of technology in cars within 15 years. That is going to be huge."

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