Robot car contest seeks to create safer drivers

Robot car contest seeks to create safer drivers

Students from 50 schools in Israel and abroad built driverless vehicles that had to negotiate traffic and road hazards automatically

Teams work on their projects at Robotraffic (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Teams work on their projects at Robotraffic (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in Israel, and government, schools, and private organizations have put endless efforts into trying to get people here to drive more safely. Tough laws, daily reports tallying the dead and injured at the end of each day, and endless appeals have so far failed to instill safe driving habits among Israelis. The death toll on the roads remains as high as ever.

Where threats, appeals, and education have failed, perhaps technology can succeed. Israeli start-ups have developed a number of innovative technologies to encourage safer driving, such as the one marketed by Safe Drive Systems (formerly AWACS). That radar and camera-based system warns drivers of dangerous situations, such as when a driver gets too close to the car ahead to safely brake. Another Israeli company, Greenroad, uses Internet and GPS technology to keep tabs on drivers, ensuring that they stay within the speed limit and do not attempt any dangerous maneuvers.

The ultimate safe vehicle, of course, would be one that could respond automatically to traffic conditions, signals, signs, and risky moves by other drivers — in other words, a robot car. Google has developed one, and just this month, Nevada became the first US state to authorize driverless robot vehicles on its roads, and many experts believe that the robot car is here to stay.

In that spirit, the Technion last week held the third annual Robotraffic contest, in which students from the fourth through eighth grade built a mini-robot car of their own. Teams from some 50 schools in Israel and abroad built car-shaped robots that operated in virtual traffic situations, with the robots negotiating a drive through several streets of a model city. The city was equipped with traffic lights, road signs, and obstacles, and the robots needed to automatically respond to road events, avoiding accidents and observing traffic laws. The vehicles operated autonomously, and had to be able to “sense” road events based on the programming done by students; no remote controls were involved.

The contest was sponsored by the World Ort Organization’s Kadima Mada (Science Journey) Program and the Leumi Robotics Center at the Technion Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. In addition to schools from Israel, there were also groups from Russia, Ukraine, Moldavia, and Lithuania. Instutions belonging to the World ORT network of schools, both in Israel and abroad, swept the first-place spots in the contest’s five categories. Avi Ganon, chairman of World ORT, said that his organization “worked hard to advance science and technology education among students. This contest allowed us to bring in World ORT groups from abroad, encouraging the connection between Jewish communities abroad and those in Israel, and providing a forum to exchange knowledge and ideas between students.”

Professor Moshe Shoham, director of the Leumi Center, said that the contest had several purposes, including training students in the finer points of robotics, as well as instilling in them the importance of driver safety. And, he said, the contest helped students prepare for a future in robot technology — and, perhaps, will even inspire them to contribute to the development of technologically advance smart driving systems.

But even with all the automatic safety systems that are already on the market, as well as those that will come online in the future, the buck stops with the drivers themselves, an expert told The Times of Israel. Gadi Weissman is often called in by police and courts for professional evaluations. “These systems are useful to alert drivers, but nothing is going to replace proper driving behavior,” Weissman said. “Of course it is very difficult to change that behavior, but that in the long run is the only thing that is going to change the culture of poor driving.”

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