Oxford Uinversity RobotCar drives itself around Begbroke Science Park, Oxford, where it knows the roads.
Oxford Uinversity RobotCar drives itself around Begbroke Science Park, Oxford, where it knows the roads.
Portrait and documentary photographer,  John Cairns, based in Oxford UK.
Portrait and documentary photographer, John Cairns, based in Oxford UK.

Having a car that can drive itself has long been the stuff of science fiction.

But scientists have now created a robot car controlled by an iPad. And the Oxford University team says the technology could be installed in mainstream cars within 15 years.

It means futuristic vehicles, like David Hasselhoff's KITT in the 1980s TV series Knight Rider, could soon be driving us on the commute and school run.

RobotCar, a specially adapted Nissan Leaf electric car, has small cameras and lasers built into its chassis. When the car is driven manually the lasers and cameras act as its ‘eyes', mapping a 3D model of its surroundings, which is fed into a computer stored in the boot. The car can then ‘remember' roads and suburbs, allowing it to drive itself along familiar routes.


It asks the driver via an iPad on the dashboard whether they want to engage the autopilot and, at a touch of the screen, the car takes over the controls.

A laser under the front bumper scans the direction of travel around 13 times per second for obstacles, such as pedestrians, cyclists, or other cars, up to 50 metres ahead and in an 85-degree field of view.

If the car sees an obstacle, it slows and comes to a controlled stop.

The driver can also tap the brake pedal, like in current cruise control systems, to regain control from the computer at any time.

The scientists behind the system say it is far superior to conventional satellite navigation because it is much more precise

reading to within millimetres, compared with a few metres with satnav - and the car doesn’t need a satellite reference to know

where it is.


At £5000 (R68 000), the prototype is also far cheaper than any other currently in development and the aim is to produce one for as little as £100 (R1360) in the near future. Project leader Professor Paul Newman, of Oxford University's engineering science department, said that the technology would be especially valuable for drivers on regular routes, such the daily commute or school run.

He added: “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.

“Instead of imagining some cars driving themselves all of the time, we should imagine a time when all cars can drive themselves some of the time.”

“The sort of low-cost, low-footprint autonomy we are developing is what's needed for everyday use.”

In 2012 Google announced a self-driving car which it said had covered more than 220 000km on American roads.

The RobotCar has fewer sensors and relies more heavily on an on-board 3D street map, which could potentially be maintained by local councils or highway authorities and regularly updated by vehicles.

For insurance reasons, the RobotCar has so far only been allowed to drive on autopilot on the private roads of Begbroke Science Park, Oxford, but the scientists are in talks with the Department for Transport to see how and when it could be used on public roads.

The next stage of the research will be to make the car recognise and understand complex traffic flows and make decisions on which routes to take.

Professor Newman added: “While there's lots more work to do, it shows the potential for this kind of affordable robotic system that could make our car journeys safer, more efficient and more pleasant for drivers.” - Daily Mail