Cars which automatically avoid other vehicles, pedestrians and obstacles are moving closer to reality following work by Midland-based research and development engineer TRW Conekt.

The Solihull-based consultancy is part of a consortium working on the SMMT Foresight Vehicle project called the AutoTaxi.

TRW Conekt, is lead contractor, project manager and has supplied and developed sensor technology radar and video-based lane detection systems for the development which could be on the road in a few years.

The aim is to develop safety-critical sensors and systems to process and interpret information about a car's local environment like the path of the road ahead and the presence and movement of vehicles and other obstacles.

Alastair Buchanan, project manager at TRW Conekt, said: "Developing cars that do things which are second nature to the average driver is a hugely complex process.

"The vehicle has to be able to sense and interpret the vast array of information in all driving conditions.

"AutoTaxi will help identify the best combination of sensor technologies that may take this concept a step closer to reality."

The project is nearing completion, with all the first phase sensors evaluated and the second phase prototype sensors, the LED Radar, stereo vision system developed and evaluated on test vehicles supplied by Advanced Transport Systems.

It follows on from the use of sensor technologies which are already bringing real-world benefits to new car drivers.

Ultrasonic parking sensors are now common, while radar in Active Cruise Control sets speed between vehicles on high-speed roads.

Many research projects are also using sensors to help develop the transport systems of tomorrow.

Advanced Transport System's Urban Light Transport (ULTra) is an example of a project that has developed driverless vehicles which run along dedicated tracks.

AutoTaxi took sensors used in automotive applications, and applied different combinations to ULTra vehicles operating on ATS's Cardiff test track.

Starting with simple assessments on a figure of eight track, the tests investigated more complex scenarios, to simulate real world driving conditions such as vehicles approaching from side roads and parking.

Phase one of the project linked TRW's video lane guidance and ACC radar with lidar, which uses light to measure distance and speed, as well as ultrasonic sensors.

These were fine-tuned with the addition of stereo video sensors and an LED rangefinder. Trials in November revealed potential particularly for the LED rangefinder system.

The data will help develop algorithms to interpret the information with results due this summer.

Partners in the AutoTaxi project include Advanced Transport Systems, Praxis High Integrity Systems, Bristol University and Warwick University.

Mr Buchanan said he was pleased with tests to date. "Aside from cost, a huge cooperation project would be needed if driverless cars are ever to hit the streets," he said.

"This would have to include communication between vehicles and a fully integrated road infrastructure."