Washington, April 2 : A car that navigates city streets without a driver may soon be a reality, with researchers showing that a three-dimensional laser scanner may make such an invention possible.
The 'Spirit of Berlin' is one such automated vehicle that will be demonstrated at this year's Hannover Messe, from 21 to 25 April.
The vehicle-developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems IAIS in Sankt Augustin and their colleagues at the Freie Universitat Berlin-made it to the semi-finals of the 'DARPA Urban Challenge' competition on the back of its ability to steer without a driver or a remote control.
The rotating 3-D laser scanner in the vehicle classifies the navigable route, and is able to distinguish the street from footpaths, parking lots, houses and pedestrians.
"The scanner, which is fixed to the roof of the car, constantly moves laser beams back and forth through a mirror on a vertical axis - it moves the laser beam from top to bottom and back again," said IAIS project manager Dr. Hartmut Surmann.
"If anything gets in the way, such as a pedestrian, the laser beam is reflected and sent back to the scanner. The software analyses the information while the car is in motion and steers the vehicle in the right direction. The system comprises two back-to-back laser scanners that rotate in the same way as the flashing lights on police cars and are thus able to 'see' all of the car's surroundings," Dr. Surmann added.
The laser is capable of recording two complete images per second.
One of the challenges involved is to keep adjusting the recorded values to allow for the distance covered.
"At a speed of 36 kilometres per hour, the car moves 10 meters per second. Consequently, the measured data must constantly be adjusted to the car's current position," Dr. Surmann said.
The researcher, however, has made it clear that the new automated vehicle does not mean that the driver's license will one day become a thing of the past, and that people can sit back and enjoy the ride without taking notice of traffic.
"That's quite unlikely. At a price of 17,800 euros, the scanner is much too expensive for use in private vehicles, even though it is significantly cheaper than conventional models. The main purpose of taking part in this competition was to show what computers are capable of doing when they have the right sensors, such as laser scanners and cameras," Dr. Surman said.