Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Motoring on Linux

Years ago, an old friend of mine remarked that if his car was controlled by the Windows operating system, it would take him ages to get anywhere.

He reached this conclusion after spending many mornings downloading updates to his Windows-based system and then rebooting it before he could start work. From this, he surmised that if such Windows software was used to control the electronic systems in his car, he would spend an equal amount of time in the driver's seat waiting for updates before he could even put his key in the ignition.

My friend, of course, was a complete and utter technical Luddite -- one of those chaps that would rather have lived in the age of steam where at least he would have some vague notion about how large amounts of very hot water could be used to propel vehicles along a track.

Fortunately, however, the goods folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA, USA) are not like my friend at all. They are always coming up with new and interesting ways to enhance the performance and safety of vehicles using computer systems and software.

Just this week, for example, two of the folks there -- Sterling Anderson and Karl Iagnemma -- announced that they had developed a semi-autonomous safety system that can help drivers of vehicles avoid colliding into objects in their path.

The system uses an onboard camera and laser rangefinder to identify hazards in a vehicle's environment. Then, system software analyzes the data and identifies safe zones that the vehicle can travel in. The system allows a driver to control the vehicle, but takes control of the wheel when the driver is about to exit a safe zone, thereby avoiding objects in the vehicle's path. 

Anderson, who has been testing the system in Michigan since last September, has observed an interesting phenomenon after several folks tried out the system on a course.

Notably, those who trusted the system tended to perform better than those who didn't. For instance, when asked to hold the wheel straight, even in the face of a possible collision with an object, drivers who trusted the system to take control and avoid the object drove more quickly and confidently through the course than those who were wary of the system.

So far, the team has run more than 1,200 trials of the system, with few collisions. Most of these occurred when glitches in the vehicle's camera failed to identify an obstacle.

As for my Luddite friend, I don't know what he'd make of it all. I know one thing though. He'd be tickled pink that the researchers chose to perform experimental testing of the software they developed using a PC running the Linux operating system!

Editor's note: Interested readers can find a technical article entitled "Constraint-Based Planning and Control for Safe, Semi-Autonomous Operation of Vehicles" by MIT's Sterling Anderson, Sisir Karumanchi and Karl Iagnemma here.

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