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October 29, 2010

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Driverless vans make 13,000km test drive

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 a three-month 13,000-kilometer test drive from Italy to China - a modern-day version of Marco Polo's epic journey - with their arrival at the Shanghai World Expo yesterday.

The cars, equipped with four solar-powered laser scanners and seven video cameras that work in unison to detect and avoid obstacles, are part of an experiment aimed at improving road safety and advancing road vehicle technology.

The sensors on the vans 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 what we were going to encounter, if it was going to be good roads, bad roads, medium traffic, heavy traffic, average drivers or crazy drivers. We encountered the lot," said Isabella Fredriga, a research engineer for the project.

Though the vans were driverless, they did carry researchers as passengers, in case of emergencies. The researchers 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 steering wheel is controlled by the PC. So the PC sends a command, the steering wheel turns and we can follow the road, follow the curves and avoid obstacles," said Alberto Broggi at the University of Parma in Italy, the lead researcher for the project.

"The idea was to travel on a long route, on two different continents, in different countries, different weather, different traffic conditions and different infrastructure. Then we could encounter a huge number of situations to test the system," 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 vans ran at maximum speeds of 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, such as the time when a following vehicle bumped into the lead one. But that was just because we had stopped and forgot to turn the system off," Fredriga admitted.


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