On July 20, 2010, a team of software engineers left Parma, Italy on a three months-and-13,000km journey to Shanghai, China. So what is so special about this? Nothing except the fact that they are travelling in two driverless electric vans. It’s the first time in the history of transportation that vehicles without drivers and without using oil-based propulsion are moving on an inter-continental route. If everything goes according to plan, this will be a huge milestone in the history of mobility and robotics. This three month challenge is put forward by VisLab, a spin-off company from the University of Parma that is involved in basic and applied research, developing machine vision algorithms and intelligent systems for different applications primarily for the automotive field. VisLab Intercontintental Autonomous Challenge (VIAC) will see a convoy of sensor-rich vans pass through mountain ranges, heavily congested city areas (in Moscow) as well as take on the rigors of Siberia’s harsh climate before ending up on the bustling freeways of Shanghai in October.
Each of the two vans will carry two technicians, ready to step in should anything go awry, but to all intents and purposes the electric-powered vehicles will be driving autonomously at various stages. The convoy is led by a vehicle in which operators take control every time a decision has to be taken, which is known as the ‘leader’ vehicle. The leader vehicle broadcasts its GPS position via radio. The second vehicle, the ‘follower’, receives the leader’s GPS position, allowing it to follow the van in front via various GPS waypoints, refining its position via local sensing. Along the route, there will be scheduled demonstrations during which passengers can sit in the vans and experience the driverless challenge up close. A solar panel is used to power the autonomous driving system, so all cameras, lasers, computing power and actuators are powered by green energy. All of the data from every sensor on the vehicle will be downloaded, allowing the engineers to time and time again the very same route, enabling them to fine-tune algorithms as well as develop new ones.