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Oxford University unveils inexpensive self-driving car

Oxford University has shown off a new technology that promises to be a low-cost alternative to Google's self-driving cars.

Dubbed RobotCar, it runs on a modified Nissan Leaf. Unlike other autonomous vehicle endeavours, the RobotCar does not self-drive at all times; it determines when it is in a low-risk driving environment, and then offers to take over from the driver, using a tablet mounted to the dashboard.

"It's not total autonomy for the car," Professor Paul Newman told the Guardian. "It knows when things are good, and when the risks are reasonable, and then it will offer to take over."

To design the system, the engineers at Oxford took a different approach than that taken by Google with its highly publicised self-driving cars. While Google's self-driving car uses GPS for navigation, RobotCar makes use of lasers and cameras which are mounted all around the vehicle to look ahead for cars, pedestrians or anything that could pose dangers. Every time an obstacle is detected by its sensory equipments, the car resorts to a controlled stop and waits for the obstacle to move out of its way. Once, it detects a free passage, the car resumes driving.

The system currently runs around £5,000, but researchers hope to reduce its price to £500 and, eventually, to as low as £100. It has been tested on private streets in the UK and there are plans to roll it out to public roads, pending the authorisation of the Department of Transportation.