Robotic car developed by Oxford University

The robotic Wildcat can drive itself using banks of different sensors

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Scientists at Oxford University have developed a new car that can "see" the world around it.

The modified Wildcat can interpret data from technology such as cameras, radar and lasers to drive itself.

The hope is that the technology will eventually improve traffic safety and cut congestion.

The project leader, Prof Paul Newman, said the car could drive without human intervention by being aware of its surroundings.

Traditionally GPS systems can broadly tell where a car is on the road but are unable to accurately guide it at speed without a significant margin of error.

The sensors on this autonomously driven vehicle can pinpoint its location exactly and enable it to respond to its environment more safely.

Google car

In the future Professor Newman is convinced that on-board computer capacity will have an enormous impact on motoring.

He envisages car companies in an "arms race" working to achieve the greatest number of minutes of autonomous driving per vehicle.

He said: "You can imagine one company advertising a model of car which, on average, drives itself for 10 minutes a day and then another manufacturer will come out with one that does 15 minutes."

Already there are cars that can park themselves and last year Google announced its self-driving car saying that it had covered more than 140,000 miles on American roads.

The Oxford car differs from Google's by having fewer sensors and relying more heavily on an on-board three dimensional map of streets.

The basic map could potentially be maintained by local councils or highway authorities and updated by vehicles.

Prof Newman said: "Think of the impact that computers have had on offices, they have totally transformed them, and the same thing is going to happen on the roads.

"In the future autonomous robotic vehicles will get us safely and efficiently from A to B whilst taking the load off their human drivers.

"Our long-term aim is to enable a new generation of robotic vehicles that can make the roads safer, less congested, cleaner, and personal transport more accessible. We do this by making smarter cars."

The Oxford project has been given £1.4m by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research council and is a collaboration between the university, BAE Systems and Nissan.

'Thinking cars'

The team say that computer assisted vehicles will not get distracted or tired and can remotely connect to the internet to communicate with other cars.

The Department for Transport estimates that cost of congestion will rise to £23bn-£24bn a year by 2025 so connected vehicles, like this prototype, could help alleviate some of those costs by avoiding jams and giving the driver time off to do other tasks.

Prof Newman said: "We need cars that do the thinking and concentrating for you, cars that do not insist you do the driving all the time.

"If the going is slow why can't I watch the show I missed last night, Skype with the kids, read a book or send that last email and elect the car to handle the drudgery of the trip for me?"

The legal ramifications of how people insure an autonomously driven car is one of the issues that will need to be resolved but for now Professor Newman says he was concerned with making the technology work.

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