Driverless electric vans begin 8,000-mile Silk Road test

Engineers today began the longest-ever test trip of driverless vehicles from Italy to China along the Silk Road, to examine the limits of future automotive technology. Two bright orange solar-powered electric vehicles will aim to cover 8,000 miles through the traffic of Moscow, the summer heat of Siberia and the bitter cold of the Gobi desert before the planned arrival in the World Fair 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.

Called VIAC, for VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge, the 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. There will also be a number of support and workshop trucks.

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 along the old Silk Road. "We will definitely need some help by humans. It is not possible to have 100% driverless. This is why I call it a test, not a demonstration," Mr Broggi said.

Governments have yet to produce rules of the road for driverless vehicles, so the team has obtained prior permission from all countries along the route to carry out the experiment. To protect themselves from liability, they are placing one of the technicians in the driver's seat, ready to assume the controls or hit an emergency shutdown button if necessary.

The technology developed by Vislab, an artificial vision and intelligent systems lab at Italy's University of Parma, might one day allow driverless vehicles to transport goods across Europe. Analysts say such technology is feasible in the foreseeable future, but some question its utility. "It begs the question why. In Australia, you have big trucks with three or four trailers attached in the desert. Why do you need an autonomous vehicle if you can connect them with a piece of steel?" said Andrew Close, an analyst at IHS Automotive.

Close said he expected it to take at least a decade before a convoy of driverless vehicles following a lead would be ready to hit the road on a transport job. Mr Broggi said driverless vehicles are probably 20 years away. But elements of the technology could find applications much quicker. For example, the scanners being tested could soon allow farmers to program tractors to plough and seed fields through the night. The project has been funded with a £1.5 million grant from the European Commission's European Research Council.



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