Four driverless electric vans successfully ended a 13,000-kilometre test drive from Italy to China which mirrored the journey from East to West carried out by Marco Polo in the Middle Ages.
The four vans, packed with navigation gear and other computer software drove themselves Across Eastern Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan and the Gobi Desert without getting lost.
The vans arrived at Shanghai Expo. They had been equipped with four solar-powered laser scanners and seven video cameras that work together to detect and avoid obstacles.
It was all part of an experiment aimed at improving road safety and advancing automotive technology.
According to AP, the sensors on the vehicles let them navigate through wide extremes in road, traffic and weather conditions, while collecting data to be analysed for further research.
The experiment was sponsored by the European Research Council. Isabella Fredriga, a research engineer for the project said the vans encountered all the best and worst that a road system could chuck at it.
Though the vans were driverless and mapless, they did carry researchers as passengers just in case of emergencies. The experimenters did have to intervene a few times. The vans got snarled in a Moscow traffic jam and humans were needed to handle toll stations. At one point, a van stopped to pick up hitchhikers.
They were based on a computerised artificial vision system dubbed GOLD, for Generic Obstacle and Lane Detector. This analysed the information from the sensors and automatically adjusted the vehicles’ speed and direction.
Alberto Broggi of Vislab at the University of Parma in Italy, the lead researcher for the project said that a PC controlled the steering wheel.
“The idea here was to travel on a long route, on two different continents, in different states, different weather, different traffic conditions, different infrastructure. Then we can have some huge number of situations to test the system on,” he said.
Rather than replacing drivers it is hoped that the technology will be used to study ways to complement drivers’ abilities.
The vehicles ran at maximum speeds of 60 kilometres per hour and had to be recharged for eight hours after every two to three hours of driving.