Electric vehicles that will pick up their owners after work fully charged after finding their way through a busy car park are being developed by European researchers.
Part of the V-Charge project, funded through the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme, the technology aims to address future challenges related to the global attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“If we want to move from fossil fuels to electric vehicles, we have to rethink our transportation systems,” said Paul Furgale, deputy director of the Autonomous Systems Lab at the ETH Zurich who spoke about the project’s results at the REWORK Future Cities summit in London this week.
“For consumers, electric vehicles are certainly a step down compared to current combustion engine-powered cars – they have short ranges, worse performance – if we want to make them viable we have to combine them with elements of public transport.”
The V-Charge project, currently in its final months, is trying to make electric vehicles autonomous to the point when they could drop off their owners at a train station, locate the nearest charging point, drive there, charge themselves, find a parking spot and drive back to the train station to pick up the driver several hours later.
“When the driver leaves the car, he hands over the control of the car to the on-board system via a smartphone app,” Furgale explained.
“When he comes back several hours later, he will use the same smartphone app to call the car and he wouldn’t need to worry about the range as the car would have taken care of it autonomously,” Furgale said.
The research team, involving scientists from the UK’s Oxford University, the Universities of Parma and Braunschweig, as well as BOSH and Volkswagen engineers, is using low cost, near market ready, sensors that can be seamlessly integrated into the electric vehicles to allow them to drive autonomously even without constant access to the GPS signal in indoor garages.
“The car needs to be able to assess its environment in real time,” Furgale explained. “It has to have a 360 degree view around, it has to be equipped with ultrasonic sensors and smart software that can detect positions of objects in the environment and calculate their trajectories.”
Surprisingly, the researcher said, autonomous driving at low speeds, such as in car parks and underground garages presents very specific risks compared to driving on a highway.
“Pedestrians behave quite unpredictably in areas where cars are driving slowly,” Furgale said. “There are many objects around and the car needs to be able to figure out whether these objects are static or moving and in what directions are they moving. The software has to calculate hundreds of trajectories per second to be able to predict what will happen in the environment in the next moments.”
The team has performed several autonomous test drives with a converted Volswagen Polo equipped with two stereo cameras at the front and rear of the car, four fish eye cameras, and 12 ultrasonic sensors.
Combined, the sensors can calculate the vehicle’s position in relation to other objects including pedestrians and other vehicles and take it safely to a parking spot.
The team believes the technology is almost ready to hit the market. They are still working on increasing the precision of the autonomous parking algorithms to make sure the vehicles can find a charging point and correctly align themselves to get the charge.