Fast-approaching future of driverless automobiles

Last month, on a freeway from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, John Markoff sat in the driver's seat of an Audi A7 while software connected to a video camera on the windshield drove the car at speeds up to 65 miles an hour - making a singular statement about the rapid progress in the development of self-driving cars, he writes in The New York Times.

While the widely publicised Google car and other autonomous vehicles are festooned with cameras, radar and the laser range finders called lidars, this one is distinctive because of the simplicity and the relatively low cost of its system - just a few hundred dollars' worth of materials.

"The idea is to get the best out of camera-only autonomous driving," said Gaby Hayon, senior vice-president for research and development at Mobileye Vision Technologies, the Israeli company that created the system in the Audi.

The Mobileye car does not offer the autonomy achieved by Google's engineers.

The Google car, which has been tested for more than 300,000 miles in California traffic, will merge onto freeways, drive safely through intersections, make left and right turns, and pass slower vehicles.

By contrast, the Mobileye vehicle is capable only of driving in a single lane at freeway speeds, as well as identifying traffic lights and automatically slowing, stopping and then returning to highway speeds.

But by blending advanced computer vision techniques with low-cost video cameras, the company is demonstrating how quickly autonomous driving can be commercialised.

"You cannot have a car with $70,000 of equipment," said Amnon Shashua, a computer scientist at Hebrew University and a founder of Mobileye, referring to Google's lidar system, "and imagine that it will go into mass production".

© 2013 The New York Times News Service