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Self-driving Volkswagen goes on a 1,500-mile drive

Update Date: Nov 01, 2015 01:34 PM EST
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A team of researchers has completed Mexico's longest-ever journey in an autonomous car, traveling 1,500 miles in a special high-tech Volkswagen.

Raul Rojas, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, led a team that traveled from Nogales to Mexico City this month. The car used for the journey is a 2010 Volkswagen Passat station wagon named Autonomos, was sent to Reno from Berlin.

Autonomos is has seven laser scanners, nine video cameras, seven radars and a precise GPS unit, all of which were used in various combinations to navigate during the trip. The researchers preprogrammed the route into the self-driving software, but the car handled maneuvers like braking and lane changes on the fly.

Autonomos is the latest milestone on the journey toward bringing self-driving vehicles to the general public. In September, details about Apple's reported interest in the market and about Google's efforts to make its self-piloted vehicles behave less like robots and drive more fluidly emerged. In October, Japanese carmaker Toyota said it planned to have autonomous cars commercially available by 2020. Last year, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said we'll see fully autonomous driving in "maybe five or six years."

Rojas has worked with autonomous cars since 2006. His team consisted of two researchers from Freie Universität Berlin and an employee of an autonomous-vehicle research company.

The crew covered 4,000 miles in and around Nevada, collecting as much data as possible. Afterward, they examined the information to make sure the system was glitch-free. Rojas then headed down to Nogales. He and his party took turns driving, with the remaining team members poring over data coming from the vehicle's autonomous equipment.

The trip was smooth, with the only issues occurring when the car encountered fresh pavement without lane markings. The car arrived safely in Mexico City approximately one week after its October 12 departure. Autonomos covered between 250 and 300 miles per day.

"Autonomous cars require special maps in order to operate safely, maps in which the number of lanes, the structure of the highway markings and also the position of exits, intersections and possibly of traffic lights are marked," he told a reporter at his university. "Such maps are not commercially available for all countries, and therefore every autonomous car project still has to produce its own maps."

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