Driving Into the Future: Autonomous Golf Carts Coming to Texas A&M

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By Samantha Corpus

The future of self-driving vehicles was driving around Bryan this week. Sri Saripalli, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University, has been developing two self-driving vehicles, a standard Lincoln hybrid and a Polaris golf cart, for the past year.

The Texas A&M Engineering Program has partnered with the ATLAS development in Bryan to allow researchers to test drive the vehicle with passengers around the Lake Walk Town Center over four days in July. ATLAS is an extension of the Traditions Club and Community and is at the epicenter of the Texas A&M Biocorridor. It is located two miles from the Texas A&M campus and adjacent to the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

Community members and local media outlets were invited to join the researchers on their test drive through Lake Walk. On this reporter’s drive the test drive was short. The ride started from the entrance of the Stella Hotel and moved toward Traditions Club and Community on a pedestrian walking path. The cart then turned around to drive on the edge of the street back to the entrance of the Stella Hotel.

The golf cart’s GPS had been preprogrammed the day before on a carless street, but during this reporter’s ride, cars were parked on the path that was programmed. Researcher and Ph.D. student Garrison Neel was behind the wheel for the drive to take control to maneuver the cart around unforeseen obstacles like the parked cars.

At the moment, the golf cart has not been programmed to maneuver itself around obstacles in its path, and instead comes to a complete stop until it is taken control of by a driver.

The Polaris golf cart can follow a predetermined GPS waypoint that has been programed by the researchers. While automated, the cart can reach up to 15 miles per hour on the street, and was programmed to go slower on the pedestrian sidewalk. It can also be controlled using a game controller.

“A game controller was easiest to implement first and it allowed us to ensure that everything was working,” says Neel. “We can control the golf cart directly with the controller itself, and we used that to prove that all the lower level systems were functioning like we could steer remotely, we could give gas, and break before we just decided to let a computer handle everything.”

The golf cart is equipped with Velodyne VLP-16 Lidar, Novatel SPAN IGM-A1 GPS/IMU, and a Zed stereo camera that work as the cart’s sensors detecting objects in its path and geographical changes. If the cart senses an object or a person in its path, the cart will automatically hard brake on its own to avoid collision.

“Lidar gives us a 3D view of the environment and we can look through that to find things like this electrical box, which is marked in red, and this sign that will be marked in red as it comes into view,” explained Neel during the ride. “Lidar stands for light, detection, and radar.”

The golf cart is an off-the-shelf Polaris golf cart that retail for $15,000. After the mechanical engineers bought it, they sent it to AutonomouStuff in Illinois to change out the steering wheel to one that is computer controlled, a $40,000 addition. The sensors that it is equipped with are $50,000, making the golf cart worth $105,000.

Saripalli says a new state law will go into effect on Sept. 1 permitting automated vehicles to be tested on open roads and highways. This will allow Saripalli and his researchers to test drive their automated car through traffic.

The team plans to deploy their first golf cart model on the Texas A&M campus in August after receiving approval from the Institutional Review Board. The goal is to deploy a group of golf carts to work on campus as shuttles. Students, or anyone needing a ride, would be able to download the app Saripalli is creating that will allow them to talk to the vehicle and request a ride, like an Uber or Lyft.

“Next month we want to deploy this on campus for freshman from West Campus Garage to the Memorial Student Center,” says Saripalli. “So, if you’re a freshman, if you come to Texas A&M, you get an autonomous ride.”