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The thinking car where you can relax

Get in, lean back, relax - travelling in a car could one day be as easy as that as scientists in Germany are conducting experiments that may lead to driverless vehicles which may not need human oversight behind the steering wheel.

autos Updated: Dec 28, 2010 12:54 IST

Get in, lean back, relax - travelling in a car could one day be as easy as that. Scientists in Germany are conducting experiments that may lead to driverless vehicles and in a few decades transport might be possible without the need for human oversight behind the steering wheel.

Tinosch Ganjineh has a vision of a country full of taxis. Ganjineh is a researcher at Berlin's Free University and he believes that some time in the future individual modes of transport will become a thing of the past.

If Ganjineh is correct a publicly owned fleet of vehicles will exist which everyone has access to. Those vehicles will not require the skills of a human driver.

It sounds like pure science fiction but it is founded on some solid research. A car stands in Ganjineh's laboratory that in 30 years time could be a model for a driverless taxi.

The vehicle has been christened "Made in Germany" and was developed by the team of scientists around IT professor Raul Rojas with the goal of researching autonomous mobility. For the moment, however, the car must have a back-up human driver on board who can take control if something does not go according to plan.

At first glance it looks like an ordinary Volkswagen Passat but a laser scanner device mounted on the roof indicates there is more to this car.

"The scanner turns around at a speed of 10 revolutions a second, scanning its surroundings and generating a 3D image," explains the researcher. The scanner allows the car to "see" in almost every direction at the same time.

Less obtrusive are the integrated laser and radar scanners that allow the car to recognise obstacles. "They can detect other cars or pedestrians and their movements," says Ganjineh.

Road markings, signs and traffic lights can also be recognised and there is a GPS system on board. Along with the ability to detect position within a few centimetres, the GPS performs other vital tasks.

The driverless taxi can instantly recognise a passenger as soon as he or she orders the vehicle using a PC tablet, according to Ganjineh. After initiating the order an available car will immediately make its way to the passenger.

Ganjineh thinks travelling by car would become a far more relaxing and comfortable experience if there were only driverless vehicles on the roads.

"It would lead to a saving of up to 80 percent of the cars currently registered," he says. That's because the vast majority of vehicles spend most of their time parked at the side of the road or in a garage.

Traffic jams would cease to exist if Ganjineh's dream ever comes true and traffic accidents would never happen. That's because a computer controlled car can "see" more than a human sitting at the steering wheel can, it can react faster and it is never distracted - as long as the system is in working order.

If that's not the case the vehicle could take itself to a mechanics for repairs or order a tow truck.

The "Made in Germany" car has shown in testing that it can react successfully to dangers such as a child suddenly running onto the road. "Of course that's not enough," says Ganjineh. The researcher says the car must also be able to function without making a mistake in the real world. "We're working on that," he says.

Germany's Technical University of Braunschweig is conducting a similar project that is showing some teething problems. The "Leonie" car is experiencing difficulties recognising road signs, according to Markus Maurer, head of the university's Institute for Automatic Control.

Nevertheless, Maurer believes in principle that computer controlled cars such as "Leonie" or "Made in Germany" could one day function as driverless taxis.

"However, a lot more work has to go into developing the car's ability to make decisions for itself," he says.

Researchers are still only at the initial stage of developing a car that can replicate humans' ability to deal with multiple complex situations at the same time and to make decisions. Another problem the researchers are facing is how to get cars to communicate with each other.

First Published: Dec 27, 2010 12:03 IST