Smartphone Drives Autonomous Power Wheels

By Wesley Fenlon

This autonomous car isn't big enough to sit in, but it's an impressive student project controlled solely by GPS and a camera sensor.

Let's face it: Most of us will have to wait a long, long time to ride around in one of Google's self-driving cars. The technology is already amazing, but not entirely ready to share the road with human drivers (and the legal system isn't quite ready for that headache, either). But if you want to get a taste of that self-driving car experience, you can check out this project from a trio of college students from Griffith University in Australia. It's a self-driving car running on a smartphone.

Well, we're using "car" loosely, here. The project, which just won a Queensland iAward, uses a miniature Power Wheels car to test out the capabilities of a smartphone-controlled smart car. The students mounted a smartphone on the car's hood with its camera sensor facing the road. That camera gives the autonomous car its eyesight, but navigation comes from the GPS. Imagine how incredible this would've been when you were actually small enough to fit inside a Power Wheels car.

Like the high altitude balloon projects that shot video from high in the stratosphere, this project is a great example of how older, dedicated technologies are being replaced by smartphones with multiple capabilities. Of course, the Power Wheels/smartphone combination was more of a proof of concept--after winning the iAward, the students plan on putting their prize money towards better sensors and a larger autonomous vehicle, which they've already partially assembled using 3D printed parts.

Current autonomous vehicles use a complex array of cameras and lasers to detect oncoming vehicles and watch out for road hazards. We're guessing the smartphone camera isn't up to spotting a potential collision at an intersection; but by starting with a smartphone, the students may be able to add on advancements to the autonomous car while keeping costs low.

They plan to have the car roadworthy--but, we hope, not driving alongside other vehicles--by mid-August. The video unfortunately doesn't show the car in action, but it offers a glimpse at the impressively minimal amount of circuitry involved in making the thing go.