By Keerthi Chandrashekar ( | First Posted: Jul 14, 2012 01:21 PM EDT

The obstacle course in Michigan where the driving system was tested. (Photo : MIT)

Advances in driving mean that soon we may all be cruising along highways with our hands free to text, eat, and whatever else comes to mind. A team of researchers from MIT's Department of Mechanical has chosen a different path - an intelligent co-pilot that will simply make sure you don't hit anything.

Using an onboard camera and a laser rangefinder, the system determines the spacial orientation of the vehicle. Then, using an algorithm developed by the researchers, the system will identify 'safe zones' where the car will not hit anything.

"The real innovation is enabling the car to share [control] with you," says Sterling Anderson, Ph.D student at MIT and one of the system's developers. "If you want to drive, it'll just ... make sure you don't hit anything."

While autonomous parking systems exist, Anderson felt that the preplanned method doesn't translate well to driving. Instead, all humans drive differently and Anderson wanted to focus on creating a system that understands the way humans think while driving.

"The problem is, humans don't think that way. When you and I drive, [we don't] choose just one path and obsessively follow it. Typically you and I see a lane or a parking lot, and we say, 'Here is the field of safe travel, here's the entire region of the roadway I can use, and I'm not going to worry about remaining on a specific line, as long as I'm safely on the roadway and I avoid collisions,'" Anderson said.

So rather than trying to determine a path through obstacles, the system chooses to identify safe zones, basically just areas where the vehicle won't hit anything.

Anderson hopes that one day the technology could be implemented into cellphones, which the driver could simply stick in the dashboard.

Interestingly enough, drivers who trusted the system drove more efficiently and confidently through an obstacle course. For instance, when told to drive straight at a barrel, the drivers who trusted the system to make the adjustments did better than those who chose to make a turn to avoid the barrel.

Watch a video of the system in action:

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