Will Self-Driving Golf Carts Steer the Way For Autonomous Cars?

More college students and senior citizens may soon get rides on golf carts equipped with sensors and cameras—but no drivers.

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This self-driving golf cart, which winded along the paths in a public garden in Singapore in October 2014, relied on just a few unobtrusive sensors.

As Google expands testing of autonomous cars, self-driving golf carts have been zipping around a college campus and public garden. The carts are slower, but they might just win the race to put driverless vehicles on the road.

MIT researchers are publishing a paper later this month on the minimalist golf cart they co-developed that uses relatively inexpensive gear. In October in Singapore, the cart moved 500 people along winding paths in a large public garden and even avoided collision with a poky monitor lizard.

Another self-driving golf cart, by startup Auro Robotics, has been shuttling students around Santa Clara University in California. In November, it will debut on other U.S. campuses as well as in retirement communities. Within three years, Auro founder Nalin Gupta expects wide-scale usage on private roads.

So far, in the race to develop driverless vehicles, Google has grabbed much of the public’s fascination. Its cute fully self-driving prototype, which looks like the police cruisers in Disney's Cars movies, has been trolling the roads of Mountain View, Calif., and—since July— Austin, Texas.

Car-hailing company Uber Technologies is working on its own self-driving vehicle and major automakers are incorporating autonomous features. General Motors’ 2016 Cadillac sedan, for example, will include a system to automate both braking and acceleration.

Why autonomous vehicles? In an age of distracted driving, proponents say they could reduce traffic accidents and save energy via more efficient routing and ride sharing. (Read about the potential climate benefits of “robocabs”.) Yet since they need to interact safely with drivers on public roads, they pose technological and regulatory challenges.

That’s where golf carts come in.

Carts Offer Slow, Simple Approach

“It’s technologically much easier,” says Gupta of his prototype, which he co-developed as part of a robotics project at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. It operates at lower speeds than a car, so its sensors have time to detect movement, and it covers smaller areas (a campus rather than a city) so mapping is simpler.

Also, since it’s aimed at use on private property such as resorts or amusement parks, it won’t need the same government approvals.

Gupta says it’s difficult to say how much the battery-operated vehicle will cost when mass-produced, because the price of sensors has plummeted in the last two years. He says it will be cheaper to operate, because it does not need a driver. The Auro, which received seed funding from Y Combinator, is also equipped with camera, radar, GPS, and previously loaded 3D maps.

These cars have a small set of eyes that look around the road.
Daniela Rus

MIT’s vehicle could work in some of the same private communities, but it aims bigger. Under development since 2010, it’s envisioned as a less-is-more step toward self-driving cars.

“We’ve taken a minimalist view,” says Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and senior author of a paper to be presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Hamburg, Germany. The vehicle’s sensors employ off-the-shelf laser rangefinders mounted at different heights.

“These cars have a small set of eyes that look around the road,” Rus says, noting the strategically placed sensors are augmented with algorithms. While the Google car relies on high-fidelity maps, the MIT vehicle has a “dynamic virtual bumper”—a cylinder or tube surrounding it. If an obstacle is detected, the cylinder is redrawn to avoid it.

The self-driving vehicle, a modified Yamaha electric golf cart, has undergone several field trials, but the six-day Singapore garden test was the first in public. “This is the culminating experiment after many years of research,” says Rus, who worked on the project as part of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology or SMART.

Self-driving Golf Carts

MIT researchers have co-developed a driverless vehicle, equipped with sensors that are augmented with algorithms.

The cart maneuvered around pedestrians and bicyclists. Via an online booking system, it picked up and dropped off visitors at 10 stations scattered around the garden.

“It avoided all the obstacles we put in its path. And it did it without a lot of intrusive machinery,” says one of the passengers, Matt Mason, in an MIT announcement. Mason is a professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

Of course, it had the advantage of moving relatively slowly in a contained area. At a top speed of 15 miles per hour, its algorithms had time to process sensor data and recalculate trajectories. Rus says that’s fast enough to move people short distances.

Self-Driving Cars Face Obstacles

“We are in discussions” to develop the technology, Rus says, adding “it’s still early days.” She says more work needs to be done to make self-driving cars a reality, but the field—often viewed as science fiction just 10 years ago—has come a long way.

Google says its self-driving car has travelled more than one million miles since testing began six years ago. It says that in each of its 16 crashes, mostly fender-benders, a human was at fault. For example, on August 20, a Google car slowed for a pedestrian, but it was then hit from behind.

“How soon can we bring it out?,” Chris Urmson, director of Google's Self-Driving Car Project asked in a TED Talk in March. “Well, it's hard to say because it's a really complicated problem, but these are my two boys. My oldest son is 11, and that means in four and a half years, he's going to be able to get his driver's license. My team and I are committed to making sure that doesn't happen.”

Urmson and other developers could indeed spend years proving their vehicles are safe at high speeds and getting laws passed to allow their use on public roads. The various obstacles led research firm Gartner, in its 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report, to place autonomous vehicles at the peak of inflated expectations.

Yet self-driving cars have won converts, including a bicyclist who crossed paths with a Google car. In an online post, the cyclist wrote: “It apparently detected my presence (it's covered in Go-Pros) and stayed stationary for several seconds. it finally began to proceed, but as it did, I rolled forward an inch while still standing. The car immediately stopped...I felt safer dealing with a self-driving car than a human-operated one.”

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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