The engineers and researchers behind the project are aiming to produce a low-cost system that “takes the strain” off drivers.
Other companies, such as Google, have also been testing driverless vehicle technology.
The Oxford RobotCar UK project is seeking to do the same in the UK, said Prof Paul Newman from Oxford University’s department of engineering science.
“We’re working with the Department of Transport to get some miles on the road in the UK,” said Prof Newman, who is working alongside machine learning specialist Dr Ingmar Posner.
Until the car can hit the streets, the team is testing it out in a specially-made environment at Begbroke Science Park in Oxfordshire.
Fully autonomous cars won’t appear in showrooms overnight. But it seems inevitable we will be handing over more of the driving to computers as the years roll by, and this Oxford University system could well be the next step.
There are barriers of course. Makers will have to prove they are safe. Then they’ll have to convince the public. And there’s the sticky question of who’s liable if there’s a crash.
Still, most car crashes are down to the human at the wheel, so plenty of people believe robotic cars could save thousands of lives in the future.
The technology allows the car to “take over” when driving on routes it has already travelled.
“The key word for us is that the car gains ‘experiences’,” Prof Newman explained. “The car is driven by a human, and it builds a 3D model of its environment.”
When it goes on the same journey again, an iPad built into the dashboard gives a prompt to the driver – offering to let the computer “take the wheel”.
“Touching the screen then switches to ‘auto drive’ where the robotic system takes over, Prof Newman added. “At any time, a tap on the brake pedal will return control to the human driver.”
At the moment, the complete system costs around £5,000 – but Prof Newman hopes that future models will bring the price of the technology down to as low as £100.
Autonomous technology is being tested by several car manufacturers and technology companies.
Simple self-driving tasks, such as cars that can park themselves, are already in use across the industry. The Holy Grail is a fully-autonomous vehicle that is location-aware, safe and affordable.
Prof Newman applauded Google’s efforts in innovating in the space – but was buoyant about the role British expertise could have in the industry.
“This is all UK intellectual property, getting into the driverless car race. I would be astounded if we don’t see this kind of technology in cars within 15 years. That is going to be huge.”