A robot in the driver’s seat aims to make any automobile autonomous
Yesterday my kids asked me how automatic cars worked, but they weren’t thinking of transmissions. After a bit of confusion, then clarification, it turned out they really wanted to know how to make a car drive itself with things like Tesla’s autopilot features, or Google’s Waymo cars. They’d sat in a demonstration model in the Computer History Museum, and been puzzled by the missing steering wheel, gear shift and pedals. Of course, those mechanical inputs aren’t actually the hard part of a self-driving car, because replicating the work of our hands and feet aren’t anything compared to matching our eyes and brains.
Most autonomous vehicles have a battery of special sensors to help them navigate the world around them. These include everything from cameras to light-detection and ranging (LIDAR), which is sort of like echolocation using lasers instead of sound. All these sensors are then processed by a computer to help the car plot a safe course through the environment, but they’re not perfect. In some cases, sensors may even cause problems, as LIDAR has been found to confuse the scans of nearby autonomous vehicles. There’s also a lot of costs associated with specialized vehicles, but that may be hard to judge since Tesla is the only company with commercially available cars at this point.
Sitting, seeing and steering
To “simplify” things, engineers in Israel are looking into a version of autonomous vehicles that my kids would likely relate to a bit more. The Intelligent Vehicle Operator (IVO) is a portable robot that you install in the driver’s seat of a normal car so that it can act as your chauffeur. It’s roughly based on a human’s body plan to take advantage of existing ergonomic concepts like steering wheels and pedals, making it possible to add to any car on the road. When you want to drive yourself, IVO folds up and can be packed into your trunk.
As the design of IVO progresses, engineers are confident that they can make it even more compact, lighter and portable. As you’d expect, mechanically pushing a gas or break pedal isn’t too hard for a robot, and as with other autonomous vehicles, the challenge is in the programming that guides its actions. IVO has a few cameras and other sensors, like accelerometers, but nothing that gives it a wider view of the world than any human driver, much less the ability to turn it’s “head” and check its blind spot.
IVO is still a work-in-progress, so adding more inputs may still be part of the plan. Importantly, the size and price for IVO are also being refined— the current model costs under $2,000, which may present a very strong challenge for more specialized autonomy.
Source: Meet the Robot That Can Turn Your Vehicle Into a Self-Driving Car by Tia Ghose, Live Science