Without driver or map, vans go from Italy to China

Oct 28, 2010 By ELAINE KURTENBACH , AP Business Writer
One of two driverless vehicles, equipped with laser scanners and cameras to detect and help avoid obstacles, travels on the Shanghai Expo site to attend the official celebration of their arrival in Shanghai, China, Thursday Oct. 28, 2010. A team of Italian engineers launched the longest-ever test drive of driverless vehicles, a 13,000-kilometer (8,000-mile), three-month road trip from Italy to China. (AP Photo)

Across Eastern Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan and the Gobi Desert - it certainly was a long way to go without getting lost.

Four driverless electric vans successfully ended an 8,000-mile (13,000-kilometer) test drive from Italy to China - a modern-day version of Marco Polo's journey around the world - with their arrival at the Shanghai Expo on Thursday.

The vehicles, equipped with four solar-powered laser scanners and seven that work together to detect and avoid obstacles, are part of an experiment aimed at improving and advancing automotive technology.

The sensors on the vehicles enabled them to navigate through wide extremes in road, traffic and weather conditions, while collecting data to be analyzed for further research, in a study sponsored by the European Research Council.

"We didn't know the route, I mean what the roads would have been and if we would have found nice roads, traffic, lots of traffic, medium traffic, crazy drivers or regular drivers, so we encountered the lot," said Isabella Fredriga, a research engineer for the project.

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 - when the vehicles got snarled in a Moscow traffic jam and to handle toll stations.

The project used no maps, often traveling through remote regions of Siberia and China. At one point, a van stopped to give a hitchhiker a lift.

A computerized artificial vision system dubbed GOLD, for Generic Obstacle and Lane Detector, analyzed the information from the sensors and automatically adjusted the vehicles' speed and direction.

"This is controlled by the PC. So the PC sends a command and the steering wheel moves and turns and we can follow the road, follow the curves and avoid obstacles with this," said Alberto Broggi of Vislab at the University of Parma in Italy, the lead researcher for the project.

"The idea here was to travel on a long route, on two different continents, in different states, different weather, different conditions, different infrastructure. Then we can have some huge number of situations to test the system on," he said.

The technology will be used to study ways to complement drivers' abilities. It also could have applications in farming, mining and construction, the researchers said.

The vehicles ran at maximum speeds of 38 miles per hour (60 kilometers per hour) and had to be recharged for eight hours after every two to three hours of driving. At times, it was monotonous and occasionally nerve-racking, inevitably due to human error, Fredriga said.

"There were a few scary moments. Like when the following vehicle bumped into the leading one and that was just because we forgot, we stopped and we forgot to turn the system off," Fredriga said.

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trekgeek1
not rated yet Oct 28, 2010
At one point, a van stopped to give a hitchhiker a lift.


Do they mean that the researchers intervened to pick up the hitchhiker or that the van was programmed to do this? Personally, I think they did it themselves since this kind of programmed behavior would have the van pulling over constantly in city driving every time it passed a person.

Very cool though, I'm glad to see a bigger push for this stuff. Hopefully they'll get this down in 10 or so years. I'm confused by the last paragraph. It seems to imply a collision because the system was left on, but I think they meant to word it more like "we forgot we turned the system off" since this would explain a collision. A collision should never occur as the result of having the autonomous navigation on.
JimB135
5 / 5 (1) Oct 28, 2010
The Google car now this. It won't be long before this kind of technology is ready for prime time.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Oct 28, 2010
but I think they meant to word it more like "we forgot we turned the system off" since this would explain a collision. A collision should never occur as the result of having the autonomous navigation on.
I thought this was odd as well, however this quote is from the intial testing of the vehicle.

What they did was they turned the sensor system off, but left the autonav on. The autonav banged into another vehicle because it was driving blind when it shouldn't have been driving at all. They've since set up an interrupt switch which won't allow the car to move without the sensor system engaged.
jennifer_dermody
not rated yet Oct 28, 2010
Interesting, but I love to drive and I don't think I could ever get comfortable with a computer doing the thinking for me. Besides, at 38 mph and have to charge it for 8 hrs after driving 2 or 3 - better off walking
trekgeek1
5 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2010
Interesting, but I love to drive and I don't think I could ever get comfortable with a computer doing the thinking for me. Besides, at 38 mph and have to charge it for 8 hrs after driving 2 or 3 - better off walking


They weren't showing off this sweet rides range or batteries, it was about the autonomous nav system. A better vehicle could have a further range. I know it sounds odd having a computer drive, but if they test it thoroughly and tell you that you are 1/8 as likely to die as the result of a crash with the computer driving, you'd be nuts not to take those odds.
Bob_Kob
not rated yet Oct 29, 2010
I don't think anyone likes driving in traffic in cites..
Eikka
not rated yet Oct 29, 2010
you are 1/8 as likely to die as the result of a crash with the computer driving, you'd be nuts not to take those odds.


That depends on how high my odds of dying are in the first place. There's about 3000 casualities per year in the UK against 62 million people. The odds of dying based on that are 1:20000 per year for the average road user.

If the risk was high enough that a reduction factor of 8 was significant on a personal level, I wouldn't be driving in the first place.
Javinator
not rated yet Oct 29, 2010
you are 1/8 as likely to die as the result of a crash with the computer driving, you'd be nuts not to take those odds.


That depends on how high my odds of dying are in the first place. There's about 3000 casualities per year in the UK against 62 million people. The odds of dying based on that are 1:20000 per year for the average road user.

If the risk was high enough that a reduction factor of 8 was significant on a personal level, I wouldn't be driving in the first place.


The odds are likely higher in North America where more people spend more time on the roads. Most people have either been in or know a few people who have been in car accidents.

Also I wouldn't use casualty rate. Casualty rate is not accident rate. Accidents result in lost time, serious and minor injuries, and hikes in your insurance costs.
Bob_Kob
not rated yet Oct 29, 2010
Odds of getting hit by lightning is 1:576000. So lets run through thunderstorms aye?

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