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Oxford researchers modify Nissan Leaf for cheaper autonomous car


Using a system that costs little over $7,000, researchers at the venerable University of Oxford have developed a modified Leaf that can drive itself — as long as it recognizes its surroundings.
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Is the future of the self-driving car one of full autonomy, or, as car manufacturers such as Ford have suggested, one of part-time autonomy? In the near-term, the latter option seems far saner, and it’s the approach that underpins new research being shown off by academics at the University of Oxford.

The RobotCar U.K. project is using a modified Nissan Leaf, an all-electric vehicle, which is fitted with around £5,000 ($7,750) worth of prototype navigation equipment. That system includes a controller PC in the trunk — which can control every function of the car — as well as cameras in the front, lasers discreetly tucked under the front and rear bumpers, and an iPad for the user interface up front.

Oxford RobotCar UKIn time, the researchers hope to develop an autonomous navigation system that costs just £100.

“We are working on a low-cost ‘auto drive’ navigation system, that doesn’t depend on GPS, done with discreet sensors that are getting cheaper all the time. It’s easy to imagine that this kind of technology could be in a car you could buy,” Professor Paul Newman, the project’s co-leader, said in a statement.
Mapping and learning

The system doesn’t use GPS because the satellite-based system is not accurate enough for the researchers’ needs. Instead, twin cameras keep an eye on the road ahead for pedestrians and so on, while the lasers create a three-dimensional map of the world around the car — this is a similar approach to that taken by Google in its autonomous vehicle research, except far cheaper (Google’s LIDAR unit alone costs $70,000) and less conspicuous.

This is where the car’s part-time autonomy comes in — at least in city environments. As Newman put it:


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