Auto researchers are working on the next generation of driving assistance systems that will in theory make it possible to navigate a car to its destination without a driver at the wheel.

What is already technically feasible was revealed recently in the 220-km Grand Challenger desert race for autonomous cars in the US Mojave Desert. A computer-controlled Volkswagen Touareg won the race after six hours and 54 minutes.

The computer-controlled car, dubbed “Stanley”, found its way without a problem through tunnels, dry riverbeds and a rugged mountain pass.

“We changed little on the car itself. The ‘driver’ took up most of the work,” says Carlo Rummel of the Electronic Research Laboratory of the VW concern in Palo Alto, California.

The Touareg was equipped with video cameras, laser and radar sensors all linked to powerful computers, recognising instantly the road surface and other obstacles.

But before the sophisticated software can be transplanted into normal road vehicles, plenty of work is still necessary, says VW’s research chief Matthias Rabe.

“The artificial eyes and computers must become smaller and cheaper. The software would also have to be modified for it to recognise pedestrians and flowing traffic,” Rabe says.

VW was the only car manufacturer to take part in the Grand Challenge race but nearly all the big automakers are working on similar assistance systems that will take over a lot of the driver’s work.

More here.