Self-driving electric vans have begun an epic journey from Italy to China that will take them through Siberia and the Gobi Desert in a quest to demonstrate autonomous driving technology.
The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge began in front of the Milan Cathedral on Tuesday with a goal of traveling 8,000 miles to Shanghai by the end of October (follow the trek at the VIAC blog here).
The two heavily modified Piaggio Porter Electric vans will play various roles en route to Shanghai. Both, however, carry technicians who take control when needed.
Team members will take control of the lead vehicle "every time a decision on the road has to be taken," according to the organizers, but it drives autonomously most of the time. The main function of the lead vehicle is to navigate, since there are no maps for some parts of the route.
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 (see details here). 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 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. … Read more