A fully autonomous car, which is able to drive and navigate without human input, has been given the go-ahead for a trial on public roads in the UK.
The adapted Nissan Leaf has been developed by engineers from Oxford University's Mobile Robotics Group (MRG), and will take to UK roads "later in the year" after getting approval from the government in its Action for Roads policy document.
The vehicle – named RobotCar – is able to drive itself using combined data from cameras, radars and laser sensors fitted to its front and rear, and has already been tested on private roads on the Oxford University campus.
The government makes it clear that the systems are not intended to replace drivers, but that they are an extra way of keeping the driver from making mistakes such as deviating from lanes or failing to brake for a collision. "Fully autonomous cars remain a further step, and for the time being drivers will have the option – and responsibility – of taking control of the vehicle themselves," the document said.
A spokesperson for Oxford University erred on the side of caution, insisting that there is still a long way to go for this technology. "We hope to test the Oxford robot electric car on the road in the coming weeks as an essential part of building a complete system. But, as many of the components have yet to be developed, the first public demonstration on UK public roads will not occur for some time.
"There's a lot more research and testing to do, but the project is progressing well and we welcome this announcement."
The car can be controlled using an internally mounted iPad, and can be switched back to manual control by simply applying the brakes. The Mobile Robotics Group describes the car's operations as "exactly like cruise control, only this time it sees obstacles, controls speed and steering."
"RobotCar constantly monitors the road ahead to look for pedestrians, cars or anything that could pose a danger," the MRG website states. "If an obstacle is detected the vehicle comes to a controlled stop and waits until the obstacle has moved out of the way.
Automatic emergency braking and driverless parking systems are already in use in many cars on the road, but a fully automated car for everyday driving has not been used on UK roads before.
In the US, Google has been testing a driverless Nissan Prius on the roads of San Francisco to some success, with a ‘driverless car bill' enacted in California to allow the experiments to take place. The cars have since driven more than 300,000 miles without incident.
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