Research vehicle on autonomous drive through Mexico
Autonomous driving requires highly exact street maps. For this reason, the data describing the route amounted to several terabytes, the University of Nevada said in a press release. The vehicle, a modified Volkswagen Passat Variant, ran with a specially developed software. Most of the trip was highway, Rojas said, but there have been many different issues such as construction sites, urban areas and potholes.
For Rojas, the trip along Mexico’s Highway 15 sets a personal record, but the professor is familiar with autonomous driving. Already in 2010, his autonomous vehicle has already driven some 300 km round trip between on the German autobahn A9 between Berlin and Leipzig. The car is equipped with a highly precise GPS system and specialised equipment that allows it to follow a pre-set route. In autonomous mode, the vehicle drives on its own with other systems controlling speed, direction and braking.
Rojas and his team began instrumenting autonomous vehicles in 2006 at Stanford and Rice University (Houston). His driving laboratory since then has been equipped with seven laser scanners, nine video cameras seven radars and a highly precise GPS unit. Not all sensors however have been fitted and activated simultaneously. The researchers can switch sensors off and on to test the vehicle’s behaviour under different circumstances.
Rojas’ three autonomous vehicles have been licensed in Berlin for city traffic since 2011, and they have been cruising the streets of Berlin ever since. In the next years, Rojas intends to do the same in the city of Reno and to visit various other points in the USA. After the research vehicle’s arrival from Berlin, where Rojas had been conducting research at the Freie Universität, the team mapped the complete route from Reno to Mexico City, gathering GPS data and integrating speed limits and other road-related factors into the software. Before leaving on the mapping expedition, the sensors, laser scanners and imaging systems were reconnected and tested at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Applied Research Facility. A couple of days later Rojas and his graduate student were on the road. They covered about 4,000 miles gathering data on a trip through various US states and then they spent 10 days of computer processing and checking data in the lab to make sure the programs didn’t have any glitches.
Rojas and his team – Fritz Ulbrich and Daniel Göhring from Freie Universität Berlin and Tinisch Ganjieh from research company Autonomos GmbH – took turns as safety drivers: one to watch the roads and one other to watch over the computer and navigation systems. The co-pilot can see on a screen what the car is planning to do in order to provide additional safety. Two team members followed in a support vehicle during the five-day trip from Nogales to Mexico City. Rojas is working to build autonomous vehicle systems that will perform in any situation the car may encounter and ultimately become the transportation system of the future.