Self-driving Robot Vans Start Epic Marco Polo Trip from Italy to China

It’s a modern-day version of Marco Polo’s journey halfway around the world — but is anyone at the controls? The answer is NO! Two self-driving robotic electric vans have begun an 13,000 km epic journey from Italy to China that will take them through Siberia and the Gobi Desert in a quest to demonstrate autonomous driving technology.

These 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.

Self-driving robot vans start epic trip from Italy to China

So, if you happen to be driving on route from Italy to China between now and October then don’t be freaked out if you happen to come across two bright orange vans with no drivers at the wheel, it’s just a VisLab project in action. The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge began in front of the Milan Cathedral this Tuesday with a goal of traveling 8,000 miles to Shanghai by the end of October (follow the trek at the VIAC blog here).

What we are trying to do is stress our systems and see if this amazing vehicle technology 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 lead vehicle will send out GPS locations via radio that will be picked up by the follower van, which also uses its cameras and laser scanners to aid navigation and avoid obstacles like cars and people. Drivers will take control in emergency situations. The vans are topped with solar panels that power the computer processors, sensors, and driving actuators, but not the vans themselves, which retain their original electric power systems.

The road trip consists of two pairs of robotic 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. The driverless vehicle takes cues from the lead van, but will have to respond to any ordinary obstacles or dangers. The two pairs alternate stretches along the route to China.

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

The engines will use petrol generators if a power outlet cannot be found in remote regions, and a truck carrying alternative vans is traveling in convoy in case one of the vehicles breaks down.

The vans have a top speed of 37 mph and are expected to drive only four hours a day due to recharging needs; the engineers will use gasoline generators if they can’t find a power outlet in remote regions. A truck carrying alternate vans is part of the convoy.

The expedition, which is funded by a $2.3 million (£1.5m) grant from the European Research Council, is expected to collect about 100 terabytes of data on the way autonomous vehicles perform in diverse driving conditions. The researchers hope the data will help to develop self-driving mining and farming vehicles.

Self drive vehicles are nowhere near ready to be introduced into the mainstream market but the vehicle technology is being perfected all the time and if this trip is successful, that day won’t be too far away.

If you want to follow these robot-controlled vehicles on their route you can do so on the Intercontinental Challenge website where live streaming will be available throughout the whole trip which is scheduled to end on 10th October.

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