SOUTHFIELD — There are countless laws on texting and driving, but with the development of autonomous vehicles, those might be a thing of the past.
According Matt Roush, director of media relations at Lawrence Technological University, LTU has begun research and development on an autonomous campus taxi.
Funding for the taxi was made possible from several different companies, he said.
Hyaundai MOBIS, the parts and service division of the Korean automaker, donated $15,000 for a Polaris GEM e2 two-seat electric vehicle.
The company officially turned the keys of the vehicle over to LTU Provost Maria Vaz and C.J. Chung, a professor of computer science, in a ceremony earlier this month.
“It’s like a computer with wheels. We program the computer, but the computer has many sensors, so currently we rely on two camera sensors. One camera is seeing road marks. The other camera is always trying to detect signs. Also, it has a sensor in front to detect any obstacles,” Chung said.
Chung said the vehicle is the first autonomous campus taxi in Michigan.
“My goal is to create a kind of public transportation on campus so that people can drive (from) point A to point B. My goal is to complete that function by the end of this year,” Chung said at a demonstration of the vehicle Aug. 7 on LTU’s campus.
Developers are working on taking the vehicle to “level 2 autonomy” — where a driver’s eyes are temporarily off the road and hands are temporarily off the wheel — by the end of this year. By next August, Chung said, developers will be implementing level 3 autonomy, which is completely hands off.
The vehicle is only permitted to operate on campus grounds, he said.
Dataspeed Inc., a Rochester Hills engineering firm specializing in mobile robotics and autonomous vehicle technology, converted the vehicle to an autonomous drive-by-wire system, Roush said.
Roush said that a pair of Ann Arbor high-tech firms were involved: Soar Technology Inc. provided a laser-based radar unit to help the vehicle find its way, while Realtime Technologies Inc., a simulation technology firm, provided a cash donation.
University President Virinder Moudgil said the development of the vehicle is a major triumph for the university.
“This is a transformative event for Lawrence Tech. It is also a proud moment that it is created by our professor and students,” Moudgil said. “Additionally, we have always mentioned that we can never do it alone. We need partnership. Just like we have a great partnership with the city, we have partnership with the community around us.”
LTU students Nicholas Paul and Mitchell Pleune were also on hand Aug. 7 to operate the vehicle.
“I mostly worked on the lane-following part of the code. That’s the code that actually causes the car to take turns as it should and stay in the center of the lines even if there’s shadows or branches or anything across the lane,” said Pleune, a computer science student.
Students working on developing the vehicle have already won an international award, Roush said. They developed software to make the car operate autonomously and took first place in a new division of the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, held at Oakland University in June.
“The ... competition required multiple self-driving vehicle functions, such as lane following, lane change, traffic sign detection, obstacle avoidance and left turns,” Roush said in a news release.
Moudgil had the chance to take the car for a spin.
“It was an experience I’d never had before, and the joy as I’m sitting with a young student who is part of this program who is operating with a computer where this is going to go, and we both have our hands off,” Moudgil said. “As the Chinese proverb says, ‘All big things start with a single step.’ And this is a step in the right direction.”
Chung said self-driving cars have many benefits. In addition to being more energy-efficient, they can also increase productivity in their human operators.
“We are free from driving. That means we can save our time so that we can do some other things in the car besides drive, and perhaps we can legally text while driving,” he said.