About five years ago, an Indian car company stunned the world when they released a car that cost just $1,800 new. The Tata Nano and its two-cylinder engine was then and remains today the cheapest car in the world. But not for long, if a team of Oxford researchers get their way. These eggheads not only say that they can design a car that would cost as little as $150 new. It would also drive itself thanks to lasers mounted on the bumper. Because of course we live in a world where dirt cheap laser-powered robots will soon ferry us around the planet.
The Oxford RobotCar UK is based on a groundbreaking new technology that can very accurately and very cheaply create a 3D map of the road ahead. This involves the afore-mentioned lasers on the front of the car and a camera mounted on the roof. The get up now costs about $7,500 produce, but the team says that will drop precipitously in the next few years. Unlike Google, who has a head start in the driverless car race, the Oxford researchers say that they'll be able to build a system that works just as well but for a fraction of the cost.
"Our approach is made possible because of advances in 3D laser mapping that enable an affordable car-based robotic system to rapidly build up a detailed picture of its surroundings." Professor Paul Newman, from Oxford's department of engineering science told The Telegraph. "Because our cities don't change very quickly, robotic vehicles will know and look out for familiar structures as they pass by so that they can ask a human driver 'I know this route, do you want me to drive?'"
That sounds pretty fun. Whether or not Newman and company can actually put a car on the market remains to be seen. If they did, though, it would completely transform the automotive industry. We've already seen in India that the introduction of a new, ultra-cheap car like the Tata Nano on the market shocks the market and sends used car prices tumbling. It's not clear how the Oxford RobotCar is actually powered, however. Does building a whole bunch of super affordable car mean that we're just going to be clogging the roads up with more fossil-fuel burners?
It's hard to imagine a world with a $150 self-driving car, actually. More likely, is the idea that the technology being developed for the $150-car will make its way into other kinds of automotive technology. Maybe your Prius will have lasers on its bumper soon too...
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