Self-driving golf carts have been ferrying tourists around a large garden in Singapore in an experiment designed to advance autonomous transportation.
Carried out by researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), the experiment took place over a six-day period and focused on testing an online booking system that enabled visitors to schedule pick-ups and drop-offs at any of 10 distinct stations scattered around the garden.
Overall, 500 tourists used the carts, which were automatically routed and redeployed to accommodate all the requests.
"We would like to use robot cars to make transportation available to everyone," said Daniela Rus, from MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "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."
The carts used in the experiment travel at a maximum speed of 15mph and have a much simpler design than, for example, the Google cars or autonomous vehicles developed by DARPA. The MIT carts also use far fewer sensors.
“We believe that if you have a simple suite of strategically placed sensors and augment that with reliable algorithms, you will get robust results that require less computation and have less of a chance to get confused by 'fusing sensors,' or situations where one sensor says one thing and another sensor says something different," Rus explained.
The carts are equipped with a camera and a set of sensors based on off-the-shelf laser rangefinders. The rangefinders have to be mounted at different heights, unlike more sophisticated varieties developed for autonomous vehicles which measure distance in a plane.
The researchers programmed what they call a ‘dynamic virtual bumper’ around the vehicle that allows the carts to avoid obstacles that occur in this protected zone around the vehicle.
According to Rus, the obstacle-collision system encountered only one difficulty, when a large, slow-moving lizard crossed the path of one of the golf carts. "It was this stop-and-go game over who's going to do what," Rus said.
The researchers believe the carts could be of great use for elderly people who can no longer drive and have difficulty moving around.
At the end of the experiment, the researchers asked participants about their experience. Some 98 per cent said that they would use the autonomous golf carts again and 95 per cent said that they would be more likely to visit the gardens if the golf carts were a permanent fixture.