Needed: An open robocar driving simulator. Here's how.

I was recently approached by a programmer named Keith Curtis, formerly at Microsoft and now a FOSS devotee. He wants to develop a driving simulator for testing robocar systems. I think this is a very worthwhile idea -- sort of a "Second Life" for robots. We have a head start -- the world of racecar video games has already done a lot of the legwork to simulate driving, and there are two open source car racing systems.

A good simulator would bring some tremendous benefits to robocar development.

  1. Anybody, even a solo hacker in their basement, could develop and test robocar software on the cheap, and with no cost and risk from crashes. Small teams, perhaps working in car-less garages, could contribute greatly to the field.
  2. Testing could go faster, and include regular exposure to extreme situations not often found in the real world, like crazy drivers, strange hazards, map errors, sensor failures and more.
  3. Simulator testing allows the creation of new sensors which are plausible, but too expensive or too far in the future to work with in the real world. It allows teams to say, "What if we had 1cm accurate GPS? What if we had 180 line LIDAR to 100m?" and see if they can build robocar controls to use it.
  4. Robocar contests could be held in simulation, on the cheap and with no physical risk. The winners could then get funding to build real-world vehicles to race for a bigger prize.
  5. The simulator APIs for car controls and sensors can become prototype APIs for real-world interfaces, allowing easy testing and switching.

Of course, robocar simulation is nothing new. Several teams in the DARPA challenges built simulators to try out ideas. These remained proprietary efforts. Road simulation is also frequently used for traffic simulators. An open simulator would be shared, and the community (and not just the robocar development community) could contribute terrain, streets, sensors and simulators for elements such as pedestrians, human driven cars, blowing trash and new sensors, to name just a few.

Our wonderful new fast GPUs will be able to generate camera views anywhere in the 3D world for those working on machine vision. Simulating LIDAR, radar, ultrasound, odometry, accelerometers etc. is not yet done in car racing games but these things should not be hard to add. Indeed, any company selling a sensor would be well advised to build a simulated version of it. And people hacking at home love to make 3-D maps of terrain. Existing real terrain models could be imported, or new ones made by driving around with LIDAR on real streets.

To explore this more I have written a new article on how to build a robocar driving simulator where I also point to an up and coming open source simulator called "Rigs of Rods" which actually simulates the vehicles at the physics level, treating them as a network of many connected parts.

The robocar world needs somebody ready to fun the kick-starting of such a simulator, and possibly some contests within it.


I like the idea of a simulator. In a world of litigation it gives people the ability to invent without fear. It is also possible it could act as a central hub that links the many fragmented research efforts around the world.
On a side note; it would be interesting if the movie industry produced a serious science fiction film with a robocar system as a back drop. As a picture is worth a thousand words, it could act as a window showing what is possible, and get the attention of a much wider audience.
However as most science fiction films tend to be B grade crap, I am probably being too optimistic. But I think if it was easier for people to visualize a robocar system, then it would receive a lot more attention.

No movie had been about robocars but you don't make a movie about a technology. However, Minority Report contained a long robocar scene (and then, incongruously, a subway scene). Perhaps it's something about PKD but they also had JohnnyCab in Total Recall. And in I, Robot Will Smith is (correctly) viewed as odd because he drives himself. There are a few others.

Though much more common are films where they obviously have AI able to drive (for example they have intelligent walking robots) but the people still drive their cars. The new Caprica series is an example.

The simulator gives you the ability to test without fear, but there's lots to be afraid of before you get to litigation. The truth is test cars and test tracks cost money, and you don't want to keep crashing them working out the bugs. You can work on scale models, but scale models require different physics and you then have to trust that your modification of those parameters is reliable as well.

I expect a combination of simulator, scale model and full size cars on test tracks.

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