27 Apr 2007
Driverless cars will compete on an urban street circuit in DARPA's Urban Challenge
In November 2007 a VW Passat guided by laser sensors rather than a human driver will race against other driverless vehicles in an urban environment somewhere in the US.
Twenty teams are expected to be at the starting line for the 60 km race, the venue for which has not yet been revealed by the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency (DARPA). Most entrants will use commercial sensors from specialist automotive laser company Ibeo, but the company's own Team-LUX vehicle will be equipped with prototypes of the new Ibeo LUX scanners, which are due to enter limited production in 2008.
"Our scanners use an infrared eye-safe laser which complies with laser class 1 safety requirements," Jorg Kibbel and Jo-Ann Hilberath of Team-LUX told optics.org. "They have a resolution of up to 0.125°, a range of 200 m, and a field of view of about 200°. Even small objects right in front of the car can be seen."
Full 360° vision is provided by mounting two scanners at the front and one at the rear of the car, and between them they scan the vehicle's entire surroundings. Road conditions, buildings, other cars and pedestrians are all monitored.
The challenging part is to develop algorithms that can deal with all this information. "In urban areas many complex scenarios can emerge, and the algorithms must produce the right answer," said Kibbel. "Complex crossings, lane changes, u-turns, and of course all the other robots in the race will have to be dealt with. Plus we will have to park the car."
Team-LUX is confident of success, although they don't expect to see driverless cars on the streets anytime soon. But vehicles using lasers to sense their surroundings could one day be the norm, both for cars and larger modes of transport. Trucks have huge blind spots that could be monitored by lasers, while even large ships could potentially be assisted through difficult waters in similar fashion.
"Automated driver assistance systems (ADAS) and their laser sensors have a definite future in normal cars as they make driving more comfortable, whether in traffic jams, for long distance cruising, or at badly arranged intersections," said Hilberath. "But the guiding principle is simply to make the traffic safer. These scanners will help to reduce the number of road fatalities."