The Knight Rider dream of gliding around in sentient vehicles has taken a step closer to becoming reality this month with the launch of Hitachi’s new self-driving car. Designed less with fighting crime in mind and more with picking up the groceries, the Robot for Personal Intelligent Transport System – or Ropits for short – can take you effortlessly from A to B at the touch of the button and the swipe of a screen.
Developed for elderly and disabled drivers, the vehicle is designed to roam pavements and footpaths, rather than roads, and is equipped with a plethora of sensors and guidance systems to help it navigate around bumps, potholes, and pedestrians. A touch-screen map is linked to a GPS device to provide the overall direction, supplemented by 3D laser distance sensors and stereo cameras fixed to the front of the car to detect obstructions in its path.
But what about handling more difficult terrain and changes in level? Ropits takes curbs and steps in its stride: actuators fitted to the wheels can dynamically adjust their height as they encounter shifts in depth, while a gyro sensor ensures that the vehicle stays upright when negotiating uneven ground. And in case of emergency, or if Ropits gets a bit carried away at its top speed of four miles per hour, passengers can always override the system and seize control with a joystick.
While initially developed for personal transport over short distances, Hitachi sees its “specified arbitrary point autonomous pick-up and drop-off” technology soon being applied to automatic goods deliveries, meaning your groceries could one day arrive via an unmanned, by next-generation Ropits.
Research into vehicle autonomy has been ongoing for some time in the car industry, thought to be a way of reducing accidents and easing traffic, as well as increasing productivity. The “smart city” of Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, is equipped with unmanned solar-powered vehicles that are preprogrammed to shuttle passengers between specified stations. Taking cruise control to the next level, Google has been operating a fleet of autonomous cars in California – developed, some critics say after seeing the company’s patent drawings, so people will be able to spend more time using Google on their smartphones.
Fearing driverless cars will be dangerous for pedestrians by removing eye contact between the driver and a person crossing the road, engineers at Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research have gone one step further and produced a car with eyes – which meet your gaze and prompt a recorded voice to tell you that it is safe to cross. For now, its pink blinkers and sonorous tones seem friendly enough; let’s just hope it doesn’t learn road rage.