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Wednesday, February 17, 1999 Published at 18:58 GMT


Sci/Tech

The car that drives you

Autopilot systems in cars could eventually reduce traffic accidents

A new autopilot system for cars has been developed which guides a car through town traffic - the "driver" just sits back and watches.

The technology takes over steering, lane-changing and indicating, as well as controlling speed. Previous systems could only keep a car a certain distance from the one in front.

One quirk of the system is that it does not automatically keep to speed limits, because it sets it speed by matching that of other cars. This tactic avoids the need to recognise individual lanes which is difficult on busy town streets.

Professor Frank Heimes, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Information and Data Processing, Germany, says the aim is to make driving easier in the high-stress, complex situation of inner-city driving, particularly for people with disabilities.

He says that accidents are usually caused by slight errors of human judgement. Although a machine will never be perfect, it might do better than a human in some circumstances.

Driving by video

The system relies on two video cameras on the front of the car. This visual information is fed into two computer chips. These work out where the car is on the road and where any other cars are.

The chips recognise cars, pedestrians and road junctions by comparing what the cameras see with stored three-dimensional models.

If action is necessary, then the steering, for example, is automatically adjusted. The driver could take over at any moment by grabbing the wheel or stepping on a pedal.

The prototype system is not foolproof. The database only contains roads of fixed widths.

It is also too large to fit into most cars and so it is unlikely that it will be used in the near future. There would also need to be legal changes. In the UK, for example, automatic control of steering and brakes is illegal.

The work is reported in New Scientist.



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