When self-driving cars reach the masses, thanks may be due to a 19-year-old high-school student from Romania who developed an artificial intelligence that slashes the cost of the technology.
He took top prize — a $75,000 scholarship — Friday at an international science and engineering fair.
Self-driving cars are nothing new. Tech giant Google, for example, has been working on one since 2010. But Google’s uses technology that was developed without thinking about cost, prize winner Ionut Budisteanu explained.
“The most expensive thing from the Google self-driving car is the high resolution 3-D radar, so I was thinking how I could remove it,” he told NBC News.
His solution relies on processing webcam imagery with artificial intelligence technology to pick out the curbs, lane markers, and even soccer balls that roll onto the road. This is coupled with data from a low-resolution 3-D radar that recognizes “big” objects such as other cars, houses, and trees.
All of this information is collected and processed real time by a suite of computers that, in turn, feed into a “supervisor” computer program that calculates the car’s path and drives it down the road.
Budisteanu ran 50 simulations with his system and in 47 of them it performed flawlessly. In three, however, it failed to recognize some people who were 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 meters) away. He said slightly higher-resolution 3-D radar should do the trick and still keep costs at a fraction of Google’s.
The high-resolution 3-D radar used by Google, he noted, costs about $75,000. His whole system should work for no more $4,000.
And at that price, self-driving car technology could move from the realm of big-budget tech companies to the masses. He has funding from a Romanian company to begintesting a prototype this summer.
The advantages of self-driving cars are many, noted Budisteanu. More than 2 million people die each year in car wrecks. An additional 50 million people are injured in traffic accidents.
“And 87 percent of the car accidents are only because of human mistakes,” he said. “They don’t see the cars, they don’t see the traffic signs … the self-driving car will see everything.”
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