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Intelligent Machines

Startup Aims to Beat Google to Market with Self-Driving Golf Cart

The startup Auro says its self-driving golf cart will lead to autonomous shuttles for theme parks, vacation resorts, and retirement communities.

Even if limited to private roads, autonomous vehicles could significantly improve many people’s quality of life.

Spend enough time on the roads of Mountain View, California, and you might spot one of Google’s prototype self-driving cars. Visit the campus of Santa Clara University a few miles away, and you can see a self-driving golf cart that Nalin Gupta says will shake up everyday transport sooner.

This golf cart has been modified with sensors and other equipment so that it can drive itself.

Google and automakers pursuing autonomous vehicles are bent on seeing them take to public roads (see “Proceed with Caution toward the Self-Driving Car”). Gupta’s company Auro Robotics is focused on the more modest goal of seeing slower, less showy autonomous vehicles ferry people around the private grounds of universities, retirement communities, and resorts.

“We are closer to deploying our shuttles in the market,” says Gupta. “It’s technologically much easier.” Like Google’s cars, Auro’s vehicles require a detailed 3-D map of the environment where they operate. Collecting that data for a private campus and keeping it up-to-date is easier, says Gupta. Such environments are also less physically complex, have lower speed limits, and present fewer complicated traffic situations, he says.

Organizations such as universities and theme parks are generally free to operate autonomous vehicles on their property without regulation. Although U.S. states including California and Nevada have passed laws that enable testing of autonomous cars on public roads, the legal and insurance frameworks needed for such vehicles to enter general circulation are lacking.

Auro’s current prototypes are golf carts modified with laser scanners, radar, cameras, GPS, computers, and other components needed to steer themselves. One is already being tested on the grounds of Santa Clara University. Gupta says he has signed agreements to begin similar tests at other universities, as well as a retirement community and a resort in the Bay Area later in the year.

Auro was spun out of a robotics project at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, and founded by Gupta with Jit Ray Chowdhury and Srinivas Reddy. The company recently emerged from the YCombinator startup incubator in Mountain View. The company is also working on designs for an electric vehicle custom-designed for operation as an autonomous shuttle that would lack a steering wheel or other controls.

Gupta says that the monthly cost of renting one of his vehicles will be significantly less than running a conventional vehicle and paying a driver. The reduced cost of a self-driving shuttle could also mean that frail residents at a retirement property get to go out more, or help less mobile visitors at resorts and theme parks, he says. Auro’s software can drive shuttles on a fixed route, or make on demand pick-ups ordered via a smartphone app.

However, despite Google’s focus on public streets, there’s no reason the company couldn’t offer its technology for use on private campuses, and the company has significantly more resources. Both Auro and Google have work to do to make their vehicles smart enough to deal with every situation they may encounter.

For example, if a dog dashed in front of Auro’s current prototype, stretching its leash across the road, the vehicle would detect the dog and its owner and predict their trajectories, but not see the leash. Gupta says that his team is working on solving “edge cases” like that by improving the software his vehicles use to interpret data from their different sensors.

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