Robotic 'Co-Pilot' Designed to Take Over Your Car If You're About to Crash

By Chelsea Whyte on July 14, 2012 12:44 AM EDT

driving while texting
New robotic steering could allow you to safely multitask in your car - or at least avoid collisions when you do. (Photo: Creative Commons: mrJasonWeave)

Driverless cars controlled by robotic systems may seem like science fiction, but they could soon be real. Mechanical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made driving a bit easier with the creation of an intelligent automated system that will kick in should you be in danger of a collision.

The system uses an onboard camera and laser rangefinder to steer a vehicle automatically around an obstacle, ceding power back to the driver once the danger has passed. It can also identify safe zones to avoid debris on the road or other cars that may pose a danger.

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Sterling Anderson, a PhD student in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering describes it as an "intelligent co-pilot" that monitors a driver's performance and makes behind-the-scenes adjustments to keep the vehicle from colliding with obstacles, or within a safe region like a lane.

"The real innovation is enabling the car to share [control] with you," Anderson says. "If you want to drive, it'll just ... make sure you don't hit anything."

Anderson and his colleague Karl Iagnemma, a principal research scientist in MIT's Robotic Mobility Group, incorporated human perspective into their design. The robotic system doesn't just follow a program from point A to point B.

"Humans don't think that way," Anderson said. "When you and I drive, [we don't] choose just one path and obsessively follow it. Typically you and I see a lane or a parking lot, and we say, 'Here is the field of safe travel, here's the entire region of the roadway I can use, and I'm not going to worry about remaining on a specific line, as long as I'm safely on the roadway and I avoid collisions.'"

The system identifies safe zones that are edged by, say, the lines defining a lane on a highway. If a driver is in danger of crossing a constrained edge - for instance, if he's fallen asleep at the wheel and is about to run into a barrier or obstacle - the system takes over, steering the car back into the safe zone.

"We make sure we honor the driver's intentions as far as possible, but with the obvious caveat that we won't allow a driver steering input that will cause a collision," Anderson told MSNBC, but he said the program can drive on its own without input. "Autonomous driving is a much simpler problem than semi-autonomous for the simple reason that you don't have to worry about a human, you don't have to worry about obeying their intentions."

The researchers say they've run more than 1,200 trials of the system, with few collisions -- most of which occurred when glitches in the vehicle's camera failed to identify an obstacle, reports UPI.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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