Autonomous golf carts drive tourists around in Singapore

MIT and the National Research Foundation of Singapore recently tested an autonomous vehicle they developed together. No, it's not a car or a truck -- it's a golf cart. The researchers created a self-driving golf cart called SMART and deployed several at a public garden to drive 500 or so tourists around during a six-day experiment. Since they crafted a whole system and not just the autonomous vehicle itself, they also tested a booking method which people used to schedule pick-ups and drop offs. In the future, that system could be adapted to a mobile app like Uber.

The team used only cameras and off-the-shelf laser rangefinders as sensors mounted at different heights. Since carts like this move slowly (with a top speed of around 15 mph), the team's algorithms have more time to process data and adjust routes based on any obstacle they sense. The result is a relaxing ride, which almost every tester (98 percent of them) would love to repeat.

The vehicles are instrumented, but they are not as heavily instrumented as the DARPA vehicles [competitors in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's autonomous-vehicle challenge] were, nor as heavily instrumented as, say, the Google car. We believe that if you have a simple suite of strategically placed sensors and augment that with reliable algorithms, you will get robust results that require less computation and have less of a chance to get confused by 'fusing sensors,' or situations where one sensor says one thing and another sensor says something different.

Admittedly, the group developed autonomous golf carts as a preliminary effort and a stepping stone towards developing self-driving cars. However, senior author Daniela Rus believes the slow-moving vehicles themselves can be used to drive the elderly around in special areas, such as shopping complexes.