DRIVERS in the future could be able to sit back, relax and let their cars take over, thanks to technology tested in Oxford.

Oxford University researchers were showing off their latest toy yesterday – a navigation system that makes a car drive itself for stretches of a route.

The hi-tech system was used to control a Nissan Leaf electric car in tests at Begbroke Science Park, near Oxford.

Prof Paul Newman, of Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, is leading the research alongside Dr Ingmar Posner.

Prof Newman, 40, said: “We are working on a low-cost auto drive navigation system that doesn’t depend on GPS, done with discreet sensors that are getting cheaper all the time. “It’s easy to imagine that this kind of technology could be in a car you could buy.”

The prototype navigation system, which costs around £5,000, recognises its surroundings using small cameras and lasers.

The technology is built into the body of the car and linked to a computer in the boot.

It is controlled from an iPad on the dashboard which flashes up a prompt offering the driver the option of the car taking over on a familiar route.

Touching the screen of the tablet then switches to auto drive, when the robotic system takes over.

Prof Newman added: “Because our cities don’t change very quickly robotic vehicles will know and look out for familiar structures as they pass by.

“They can ask a human driver ‘I know this route, do you want me to drive?’ and the driver can choose to let the technology take over.”

At any time a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver.

It works in areas where the technology has experience of the environment in which it is being used, as it stores previous journeys in memory.

The technology is currently being tested and is made possible because of advances in 3D laser mapping.

The next stage of the research will focus on trying to make the robotic system understand traffic flows, make decisions about which routes to take and stop at locations such as traffic lights and crossings.

There are still hurdles to overcome but the hope is that the system can eventually be used on public roads.

Dr Posner said: “At the moment use on the roads is not legally clear and we are operating only on the private site at Begbroke.

“In order to find out how we would test on the roads we are talking to the Department for Transport.

“It will still behave like a normal car and will still look like a normal car.”

The system could theoretically be used anywhere, but the self-drive is only offered on sections of roads where the car has already travelled.

While researchers have intellectual property on the design they are not sure if they will offer it out as a commercial enterprise at this stage.

In the long term designers hope to be able to produce a navigation system for as little as £100.


  • PERHAPS the most famous self driving car was KITT, David Hasselhoff’s vehicular pal in the 1980s American TV series Knight Rider.
  • The Batmobile, Batman’s vehicle of choice was able to drive itself to the superhero’s current location in the 1989 film starring Michael Keaton.
  • In 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, Pierce Brosnan was seen controlling a BMW with a handheld device.
  • Taxis controlled by artificial intelligence were seen in the 1990 film Total Recall, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • Minority Report was a 2002 film set in the future which featured a chase sequence involving autonomous cars.
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme’s 1994 film Timecop featured cars which could be commanded to drive to specfic locations.
  • And in the 2004 film I, Robot saw cars travelling safer at higher speeds on the roads if automatically, rather than manually driven.