We are not condemned to a future of congestion and accidents. We will eventually have cars that can drive themselves, interacting safely with other road users and using roads efficiently, thus freeing up our precious time. But to do this the machines need life-long infrastructure-free navigation, and that, alongside autonomous perception, is a real focus of our work.
RobotCar is a modified Nissan LEAF. Lasers and cameras are subtly mounted around the vehicle and taking up some of the boot space is a computer which performs all the calculations necessary to plan, control speed and avoid obstacles. Externally it's hard to tell this car apart from any other on the road.
We always have an eye on safety. RobotCar constantly monitors the road ahead to look for pedestrians, cars or anything that could pose a danger. If an obstacle is detected the vehicle comes to a controlled stop and waits until the obstacle has moved out of the way. Once clear the car simply accelerates and continues its journey.
There are three computers onboard. The iPad, the LLC (Low Level Controller) and the MVC (Main Vehicle Computer). The iPad runs the user interface and demands constant attention from the LLC. If any of these computers disagree the driver will not be able to start autonomous driving. If at any point there is a problem when the car is in control the human driver is prompted to take control, if they fail to do so the car is automatically brought to a stop.
The whole user experience is provided by an iPad which quickly guides the user through the few checks that are needed to induce autonomy. When it is safe to do so, the car offers the drive the chance to be driven automatically. Here is video showing that process. At any time the driver can take back control of the car by touching the brake - it's exactly like cruise control in an existing vehicle - only this time the car sees obstacles, controls speed and steering. It feels very natural.
We have modified the base Nissan LEAF systems to allow complete fly-by-wire control. Everything from the steering to the indicators can be manipulated by the main vehicle computer in the boot. RobotCar senses the world in two main ways. The first uses a pair of stereo cameras to assess the road and navigate, much like a human driver's eyes. The second is a little different and uses several lasers mounted around the vehicle. These sensors assess the 3D structure of world and also improve performance at night.
The vehicle is all electric. This means no carbon emissions and very high efficiency. Rather than filling up with petrol, when RobotCar is out of energy simply plug into the mains to replenish its batteries' charge.