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Before Google’s self-driving cars, there were self-driving golf carts.

The autonomous vehicles pecking order makes sense- golf carts don’t require strict federal road regulations and are manageable on a smaller scale at slower speeds. Taking the technology to mainstream markets are scientists from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART).

“We would like to use robot cars to make transportation available to everyone,” highlighted Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a senior author on the conference paper.

“The idea is, if you need a ride, you make a booking, maybe using your smartphone or maybe on the Internet, and the car just comes.”

Dynamic Virtual Bumper

The development of self-driving golf carts is more straightforward compared to building complex cars from scratch. To streamline the process, scientists are focusing on creating reliable sensors that can be attached to normal carts, instantly giving them auto-driving capabilities.

Earlier this month, the group conducted a series of tests that pushed the system’s threshold in live environments. The trials were composed of 500 individuals ranging from curious children to senior citizens. Obstacles were plenty, which included fast-moving pedestrians, other carts and unpredictable animals from the Singapore garden.

The algorithm that the scientists are working on is called Dynamic Virtual Bumper. Four sensors (two long range and two short range) around the transportation pod constantly take in data, looking for sudden changes in surroundings.

The cost for the system is $30,000. Researchers expect the steep price to drop gradually in the coming years, allowing more businesses to participate in the spread of the technology.


Vigilant Stopping Features

The results of the initial study were very promising. No accidents occurred during the trial. However, there were instances when the golf carts were too defensive. For example, when a monitor lizard jumped on the path, the vessels stopped and waited for the small reptile to move out of the way.

While it’s always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to road obstacles, researchers may need to develop more flexible detection mechanisms that can distinguish a myriad of threat levels. Despite dealing with overly sensitive sensors, roughly 95 percent of the participants mentioned that they are looking forward to seeing the full implementation of the carts.


The Four-year Window

Will the group’s autonomous driving system be released before Google’s highly anticipated koala cars? For now it’s still too early to tell. The tech giant is currently feeling pressure from all sides, as many feel they’ve been left waiting hopelessly for an official release that may never come.

“How soon can we bring it out?” asked Chris Urmson, director of Google’s Self-driving Car Project. “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.”

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