Self-driving vehicles can navigate and drive on country roads with this new tech

In a first scientists have shown that it is possible for automated vehicles to drive on unknown and unmarked roads without the need of advanced mapping using just sensors and GPS.

According to a team of researchers at MIT, currently available mapping technologies used in automated driving rely heavily on meticulously labeling the exact 3D positions of lanes, curbs, off-ramps and stop signs. For this reason these automated vehicles are only able to drive on city roads that have been well studied. However, such advanced mapping is not available for country roads and for most parts of the world and to make automated driving truly penetrate the transport industry, there is a need for technology that alleviates the need for detailed mapping.

One way around this is to create systems advanced enough to navigate without these maps. In an important first step, a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed MapLite, a new framework that allows self-driving cars to drive on roads they’ve never been on before without 3D maps.

MapLite combines simple GPS data that you’d find on Google Maps with a series of sensors that observe the road conditions. In tandem, these two elements allowed the team to autonomously drive on multiple unpaved country roads in Devens, Massachusetts, and reliably detect the road more than 100 feet in advance. (As part of a collaboration with the Toyota Research Institute, researchers used a Toyota Prius that they outfitted with a range of LIDAR and IMU sensors.)

“The reason this kind of ‘map-less’ approach hasn’t really been done before is because it is generally much harder to reach the same accuracy and reliability as with detailed maps,” says CSAIL graduate student Teddy Ort, who was a lead author on a related paper. “A system like this that can navigate just with on-board sensors shows the potential of self-driving cars being able to actually handle roads beyond the small number that tech companies have mapped.”

The paper, which will be presented in May at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Brisbane, Australia, was co-written by MIT professor Daniela Rus and PhD graduate Liam Paull, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Montreal.