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BERLIN – In no more than 30 years, possessing a driver’s license may become passé, according to automotive engineers and computer scientists at Free University of Berlin. Instead, unmanned vehicles will come to you at the press of a smartphone button and take you where you need to go, whether to the boutiques via uncluttered avenues or to distant cities and towns via country roads and major highways.
Bringing this vision to life will be cars such as the MadeInGermany, a fully autonomous Volkswagen Passat altered by a team led by professor of artificial intelligence Raúl Rojas. It is the latest iteration of robotic cars that use sophisticated sensors to judge the speed, distance and direction of potential obstacles, such as cyclists and pedestrians, as well as to know the status of traffic lights and the location of intersections and other cars.
The MadeInGermany, a car designed by researchers at Free University of Berlin to operate fully autonomously, is outfitted with several laser-, radar- and camera-based sensors. For example, a top-mounted laser scanner (bottom) provides a 360° view of the car’s surroundings. Courtesy of Free University of Berlin.
Created by Rojas’ AutoNomos team as the direct descendant of the Spirit of Germany, the MadeInGermany has a suite of sensors that includes a custom global positioning system unit, a lane-detection camera that keeps the car on the right path, a laser scanner system that provides the car with a 360° view of its surroundings, forward-looking radar and stereo camera systems used to detect obstacles in front of the car, and a top-mounted laser scanner, dubbed Velodyne, that provides additional high-resolution 3-D images of the car’s surroundings.
All of the input from these sensors is directed to an onboard computer that controls the MadeInGermany’s acceleration, steering and braking systems. The car also responds to external input via an Apple iPad and returns information about its whereabouts back to the device. A demonstration of the MadeInGermany’s abilities was performed in October at the defunct Berlin Tempelhof Airport.
“I see autonomous cars as the really green cars,” Rojas said. “You do not need to own a car – the car picks you up, delivers you and continues ‘working’ – like a taxi driver.”
Rojas said that adoption of autonomous vehicles such as the MadeInGermany will be slow, with further development of driver-assistance systems coming first. After cars with lane-departure alarms and automatic braking become ubiquitous, fully autonomous cars will begin to infiltrate closed environments, such as airports and national parks, then progress to nearly autonomous highway transportation.
“The last stage is driving in the city,” he said. “This will take much longer because of safety concerns and because cities are largely unregulated environments.”