Students invent portable robot chauffeur

The foldable machine can be taken anywhere and, with just five minutes of installation, can drive any car.

Imagine you're out with friends at your favorite local bar. Drinks have been flowing all evening. The night winds down and it's time to leave. You could hail a taxi or call an Uber, but what if there was another option? What if you could take a portable robot out of your trunk, place it in the driver's seat and have it shuttle you home?

While that may seem like something a couple of guys might try to invent while drunk at a bar, it may someday actually be a reality. And that reality may be coming sooner than you think. That's thanks to a team of students at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

Graduate students at Ben-Gurion University in southern Israel present their robot to visiting guests. Graduate students at Ben-Gurion University in southern Israel present their robot to visiting guests. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

In an empty parking lot on the edge of campus, on a breezy spring morning, the students have set up a test site to show off their invention. They call their robot an Intelligent Vehicle Operator – IVO for short. Two cameras serve as eyes, while its metal legs are attached to the gas and brake pedals. Robotic clamps clasp the steering wheel.

Eyes, legs ... it may look human, in the most basic sense of the word, but that wasn't their intention. "We really tried not to have any human similarity, because people are afraid of robots driving their cars, or robots in general," Oded Yechiel, a Ph.D student working on the project, told us as he plugged in some wires. "It's cool in the movies, but when it comes down to practice, psychologically, you wouldn't want a humanoid robot driving your car."

Regardless of what it looks like, in essence, what they've invented is a portable robot chauffeur. Pop it into any car – it can be installed in about five minutes – and have it run errands for you while you read a book in the backseat. A built-in GPS provides a global map so it never gets lost. When you're not using the robot, it can fold up to the size of a suitcase. So, in theory, you could bring the IVO with you on trips.

The IVO's eyes are made of cameras, and its legs are controlling the pedals. The IVO's eyes are made of cameras, and its legs are controlling the pedals. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

Under the leadership of Professor Hugo Guterman, who heads the Laboratory for Autonomous Robotics at Ben-Gurion University, the students have built a working prototype. They are now back in the lab developing an updated version. Initially, they see their first customers as people who operate farms or massive storage facilities. In other words, in environments with little traffic and impediments from other drivers. "We don't think that we're Google or Tesla," Yechiel admits.

As far as being used on actual roads, they believe that trucking companies will be interested in it for long-haul trips once they build a more durable IVO model. Eventually, once all the kinks are worked out, they hope to make it available to the mass market. So whether you're at the bar or just too tired to get behind the wheel, your personal robot chauffeur can do the driving.

"You can transform any vehicle into an autonomous vehicle quite fast and quickly," Yechiel said. "And it won't be expensive because it's a very generic solution."

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