It’s not clear yet how a high-concept driverless car called “MadeInGermany” and designed by German researchers is different from Google’s, but scientists have been working on the car, a Volkswagen Passat, since 2006. Known as the MiG, the $551,800 car drives on its own with the help of a computer operating the brake, accelerator, and steering wheel. Laser scanners on the roof and around the front and rear bumpers, radar, and video cameras are used to recognize vehicles and pedestrians. Software analyzes the data, recognizes traffic situations, and comes up with driving instructions.

As Associated Press reports via CBS News:

The vehicle can recognize other cars on the road, pedestrians, buildings and trees up to 70 meters (yards) around it and even see if the traffic lights ahead are red or green and react accordingly,’ Raul Rojas, the head of the university’s research group for artificial intelligence, told reporters at a presentation Friday.

‘In fact, the car’s recognition and reaction to its environment is much faster than a human being’s reaction.’

[…] ‘There’s a big trend for completely computer-controlled cars — many companies and research centers in several countries are working on it and it is hard to say, who’s got the most-developed vehicle at the moment,’ Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, a professor for automotive economics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Berlin granted permission in June for the MiG to drive on public roads without a driver — the first driverless vehicle to receive the city’s go-ahead. Since then, the car (along with one or more humans sitting in it, as required by safety standards authority TÜV Nord Group) has traversed more than 621 miles. In case of a sensor failure, the human in the car can take control in fractions of a second by just pressing the brake pedal slightly. AutoNOMOS Labs, part of the Artificial Intelligence Group of the Freie Universität Berlin, which developed the car, also received permission to have the car drive without any people on board in a special testing area.

Experts differ on when driverless cars will be available for consumers. While Dudenhoeffer estimates that fully automatic cars will be in production within 10 years, Rojas believes it could take 30 or 40 years. One reason is the cost of the technology, especially the sensors.

“It is similar to the beginnings of the computers: 40 years ago, only research labs could afford computers, now everybody is walking around with a computer in his pocket,” Rojas said. He added that driverless cars would be perfect for car sharing. “There will be no more need for owning a car — once the automobile has dropped off its passenger it will drive on to the next passenger,” he said.

The Economist writes that some of the equipment developed for the MiG is making its way into production cars and that in 2007 AutoNOMOS took part in the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) urban challenge for driverless cars in California, alongside the Google Car and one by Stanford University.

AutoNOMOS also has a  prototype car called Spirit of Berlin and is working on an electric car and an intelligent wheelchair.

Image by AutoNOMOS Labs, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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