he row over whether driverless cars will ever be able to take the wheel from humans may have finally turned a corner.
Engineers have developed a new super-sensitive laser technique which can be mounted on cars to spot upcoming hazards in an adjacent street, even when they are entirely hidden from view.
The new technology would allow a driverless car to know that a child or animal has run into the road before it makes a sharp turn, a feat that a human could never achieve.
Driverless cars already have laser systems that sense the world around them, but the new development would allow them to literally see around corners.
“It sounds like magic but the idea of non-line-of-sight imaging is actually feasible,” said Gordon Wetzstein, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University.
“If your car could look around the corner it could make decisions, probably more reliably and further ahead of time.
“This is a big step forward for our field that will hopefully benefit all of us.”
The system works by shooting pulses of laser light onto a wall, which then bounce off onto objects hidden from view. Tiny amounts of light then reflect back from the hidden object, on to the wall, which in turn are picked up by a powerful photon detector.
The algorithm can send back an image in less than a second, and although it is not as sharp as a regular image, it can show whether there is an obstruction in the road.
Currently the technology performs best when picking out highly reflective objects such as safety apparel or traffic signs.
The researchers say that if the technology were placed on a car today, it could easily detect things like road signs, safety vests or road markers, although it might struggle with a person wearing non-reflective clothing.
Before this system is road ready, it will also have to work better in daylight and with objects in motion, like a bouncing ball or running child, said the researchers .
The team believe the laser could be used to see through through foliage from aerial vehicles or give rescue teams the ability to find people blocked from view by walls and rubble.
Doctoral student David Lindell, added: “A benefit of our algorithm as well is that it is compatible with existing scanning systems so you can take our system, apply it to these existing systems and be able to apply this non-line-of-sight imaging.