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University of Oxford develops low-cost self-driving car system


February 18, 2013

The MRG autonomous drive car

The MRG autonomous drive car

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Oxford University’s Mobile Robotics Group (MRG) has developed an autonomous navigation system for cars at a build cost of only £5,000 (US$7,700). Installed in a production Nissan LEAF, the robot car uses off the shelf components and is designed to take over driving while traveling on frequently used routes.

Automated driving technology already exists on several different levels – from the assisted driving systems found in some upmarket cars to full-blown robots that can drive themselves. The latter have become so advanced in recent years that some U.S. states have legalized their use on public roads. These types of vehicles can navigate everything from city streets to speedways, but fully autonomous cars have the drawback of being heavily modified vehicles with hefty price tags.

Led by Prof. Paul Newman and Dr. Ingmar Posner, the 22-member MRG team’s goal is to develop an autonomous driving system that is more affordable and can be used on standard production cars. To achieve this, the system had to be largely self-contained without the need for beacons or other infrastructure. It also needed to use standard components and have a degree of artificial intelligence.

The car chosen for MRG’s tests was a modified Nissan LEAF. The LEAF was altered to make it fly-by-wire, so that everything down to the turn indicators could be controlled by the car’s computers.

The technology is based on “autonomous perception.” That is, the car learns about the route and can constantly monitor the immediate area in order to make driving decisions. It doesn't use GPS because satellite navigation isn't always available, isn't accurate enough for driving and doesn't provide any information about what’s going on around the robot car. Instead, a pair of stereo cameras is installed in the car and there are two scanning lasers under the front and rear bumpers.

These sensors feed data to the three computers that are at the heart of the autonomous driving system. One is an iPad, which acts as the user interface. This offers to drive if the car knows the route, guides the driver to set up autonomous mode and warns of obstacles and other situations requiring human intervention. The iPad is monitored by the LLC (Low Level Controller) and the brunt of the work is done by the MVC (Main Vehicle Computer) installed in the boot. The three computers act in concert. If they disagree on a situation, the car slows and stops.

Together these sensors and computers are used to build up a three-dimensional map of the route. This is augmented by “semantic information,” such as the location and type of road markings, traffic signs, traffic lights and lane information, as well as aerial images. Since such things can change, the system can also access the internet for updates. Only when the system has enough data and has been trained enough will it offer to drive the car.

The system also uses probability and machine learning to build and calibrate mathematical models, which are used to teach it how to navigate the route. It monitors the road ahead for cars, pedestrians and obstacles by scanning 85 degrees ahead 13 times a second to a distance of 50 meters (164 ft). It identifies what and where objects are and where they are going, slows and stops the car if it encounters an obstacle, and continues when the obstacle moves. If need be, the driver can take back control by tapping the brake. Overall, the team says that the system essentially works like a very sophisticated cruise control.

The MRG team sees an immediate future in production cars modified for autonomous driving only part of the time on frequently driven routes. They estimate that the cost of the system can be brought down from its current £5,000 to only £100 (US$155).

The video below shows the MRG autonomous car system scanning the road ahead.

Source: MRG

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

All these systems lack the one feature that more than any other marks someone as a good driver, namely: anticipation. Without that they are going to have to rely on other drivers driving to a proper standard.

For example, a good driver will, upon seeing someone get into a car ahead, be it driver or passenger, will be ready for that car to pull out without looking. Or, if a good driver sees a car waiting to exit a side road into the main road ahead of them, they will watch to see if the driver has seen them. Such behaviour might not avoid an accident - one cannot simply stop because of what the other driver might do, that would be stupid - but it might make the difference between someone being injured or perhaps killed and simply having to exchange particulars. Of course, if we manage to get all road vehicles to talk to each other (where they are, what they are going to do etc.), then we might make real progress in this area of development.

These systems will survive until an inquest concludes that the autonomous system was to some degree responsible for the accident that lead to the deceased's death. In the meantime, it would be a benefit to all drivers if satellite navigation maps were the responsibility of the government (be it local or national) and freely available on a realtime basis so that traffic density, accidents, road closures, road works etc. etc.. could be included in determining the best route

As for this system’s refusal to use satellite navigation, it seems like a missed opportunity. We know that road vehicles are going to remain a major feature of human existence for many years to come. It would be of benefit for all if GPS navigation was improved to the situation where the designers of systems such as this one automatically turned to using satellite navigation, be it augmented or not. (I once read an article by one of the senior military personnel responsible for the American GPS in which he said that civilian accuracy was sub one meter. I would have though that that level of accuracy would be sufficient to give any sensor system a solid foundation to work with.)

Mel Tisdale

A laudable project that clearly has made progress in the field.

Presumably there is a clue to the present capabilities of the system in that it scans the road only 50m ahead, which clearly would be inadequate for anything more than slow speeds.

I doubt whether several circuits of the same route with no other moving vehicles in sight and attaining a maximum speed of 17 mph (as shown in the video) would convince UK authorities to allow this vehicle to be used by motorists.


This article makes me wonder about the future of auto style and even expense level. It occurs to me that much of the appeal (snob or otherwise) of owning a classy car, is sitting behind the wheel--being in control of this classy machine. But if your I-Phone, or its future equivalent, is actually driving the car, we all become passengers to a robot. What's the point to a cool car any longer? Mind you, I am not opposed to this technology. Living in North Carolina, which seems to have the worst, most lawless drivers in the country, I imagine driving experiences could only improve with robots behind the wheel. But I simply wonder. Will all cars look alike in the future, being designed by another robot?

Richard Schmidt

This is definitely a step in the right direction. Although I would want a GPS backup system for long distance (interstate only) trips which couldn't use the route learning feature. But then, if you purchased an EV for local commuting only, a GPS would be a waste of money. This could also help hybrids and EV's anticipate upcoming energy demands for a more efficient drive.


I'd love to try one of these out. My daily commute to and from work is a combination of small town, country, city, and interstate travel. It also starts early (before light) and ends mid-afternoon, with stop and go traffic from school buses. Since it is repeated 3 times a week, the AI would have plenty of opportunity to "learn". It would also be interesting to see how the AI handles different weather conditions, and if gas mileage would be improved or not. Once something like this is put on the market, it should help lower insurance rates, and stress.


Unfortunately, the iPad app probably won't get approved by Apple for distribution in the iTunes store...And by the time you get this installed, Apple will have already put out 3 new generations of iPads...and if the sun hits the iPad at the right angle, you can't see anything on it.


@ Richard Schmidt....I agree. Cars are still status symbols to a lot of people. Hopefully one day we'll get to a point where you can live anywhere and not have to own a car anymore. You can just summon one with your smart-device to pick you up and drop you off as needed. Owning a car that is parked 99% of the time is really a huge waste of resources. And I'm saying this as a car guy that loves cars and drive a pretty powerful one. Once I can't enjoy the thrill of driving it hard, why bother with how much power the car has or what it looks like. But I'm also sure the rental market for autonomous cars will have luxury or 'status symbol' rental models availalbe (like today). But for the most part I can see cars becoming less of a status symbol as we move more towards a mostly on-demand, autonomous-vehicle rental model.


@Richard Smidt,

You think that people won't want 'classy cars' any more when systems like this, or Googles complete solution are available?

The last time I checked, there was still a very upscale market for Limousines. That's what a robot driven or autonomous car really is, after all.

There is also a market for delivery vehicles. but, this system is too limited, as is the automatic parking now available for 'Luxury Cars'.

Personally, I'll take the Google Car. the sensors will need to be simplified and then mass produced. Memory will be large, but easily within current SIM card limits. A WiFi connection, or a cell phone connection for downloading maps will help.

Yes, this is the future. It can't get here fast enough.

"Sports Vehicles" including muscle cars, off road vehicles, motor cycles and some aircraft will continue to be with us, but, you will have to accept higher insurance rates if you want to drive/pilot them.

Pay more for the insurance? You already do.

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