Road trip with no driver

A team of Italian engineers have
launched what has been billed as the longest-ever test drive of driverless
vehicles: a 8,000-mile, three-month road trip from Italy to China, not in
search of silk, but to test the limits of future automotive technology.

Two bright orange vehicles,
equipped with laser scanners and cameras that work in concert to detect and
help avoid obstacles, are to brave the traffic of Moscow, the summer heat of
Siberia and the bitter cold of the Gobi desert before the planned arrival in
Shanghai at the end of October.

“What we are trying to do is
stress our systems and see if they can work in a real environment, with real
weather, real traffic and crazy people who cross the road in front of you and a
vehicle that cuts you off,” said project leader Alberto Broggi.

The road trip consists of two pairs
of vehicles, each with a driven lead van followed by a driverless vehicle
occupied by two technicians, whose job is to fix glitches and take over the
wheel in case of an emergency.

“We will definitely need some
help by humans. It is not possible to have 100 per cent driverless. This is why
I call it a test, not a demonstration,” Broggi said.

The technology developed by Vislab,
an artificial vision and intelligent systems lab at the University of Parma run
by Broggi, might one day allow driverless vehicles to transport goods across

The vehicles travel at a maximum 30
or 37 miles an hour, and must be recharged for a full eight hours after every
two to three hours of driving.

One of the many challenges facing
the team will be to find places to recharge the vehicles in remote areas of
Siberia and Mongolia. Just in case, they have packed gasoline-powered

The journey will be filmed by a
group of Italian vehicle adventurers and also streamed onto Vislab’s web site.