An experimental self-driving car has set a record for an autonomous road trip in Mexico. The trip from the U.S.-Mexico border to Mexico City provided the opportunity to collect data and prepare for an even longer upcoming road trip from Reno, Nevada to Mexico City.
The autonomous car in this case was a 2010 Volkswagen Passat Variant named Autonomos. The modified, self-driving vehicle can automatically control speed, direction, and braking without human driver intervention, but it also relies upon GPS to safely follow preset routes. Researchers prepared special maps containing terabytes of data detailing the number of lanes, highway markings, exits, intersections and traffic lights.
“We covered 250 to 300 miles daily, so it took a week to arrive to Mexico City,” said Raul Rojas, a visiting professor of robotics and intelligent systems math at the University of Nevada, Reno, in a press release. “Some parts of the highway were scary, but we had no important safety incidents.”
The 2,414-kilometer (1,500-mile) Mexico road trip took place along Mexico’s Highway 15. About five percent of the route included construction work and potholes. But the bigger challenge for the self-driving car came from the lack of lane markings along lengthy stretches of highway due to repaving work over the summer.
Rojas previously tested the same car in autonomous driving mode on a 306-kilometer round trip from Berlin to Leipzig in Germany. He and his colleagues outfitted Autonomos as a “driving laboratory” with seven laser scanners, nine video cameras, seven radars and a GPS roof antenna.
For the Mexico trip, Rojas brought along three German colleagues. Everyone took turns as safety drivers; one person kept an eye on the road in the driver’s seat and one person watched the computer and navigation systems to see what moves the autonomous car planned to do next. The remaining pair of people followed in a support vehicle.
The Mexico road trip represented just one leg of an planed 6,437-kilometer trip from Reno to Mexico City. Eventually, Rojas hopes to improve the autonomous car’s ability to predict the behavior of other drivers and pedestrians. Such capabilities would go a long way toward making autonomous cars safer beyond just highway driving.
“If a human can drive with two eyes, I am sure that we will be able to drive autonomously with a computer the size of a notebook and just a handful of video cameras in just a few more years,” Rojas said.
Huge tech companies and automakers have increasingly been testing self-driving cars on public roads. But semi-autonomous features have also been creeping into existing commercial cars. For example, Tesla Motors recently uploaded new Autopilot software to its Tesla Model S vehicles. And in 2014, the Mercedes-Benz S Class already brought semi-autonomous features to the commercial car market with adaptive cruise control and automatic collision prevention.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.