As of July 29th, two electric vans embarked from Belgrade, Serbia on a three-month road trip to Shanghai, China. Along the way, they will have to manage stop-and-go city traffic, extremes in weather, and even some stretches of off-road driving. All this would be a great test for their electric drive system, but the researchers from Italy’s VisLab put this expedition together mainly to test something else: their driverless vehicle technology. While each of the vans in the VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge (VIAC) will have passengers in the back seats, ready to take control if necessary, they will normally have no one at the steering wheel.

While autonomous vehicles have completed various challenges before, (the DARPA Grand Challenge being a notable example), the crew from VisLab claim that there has never been one this long, and that includes so many different driving scenarios. Originally, the autonomous driving was supposed to start in Italy, but was delayed by technical complications.

The team hopes that their technology will someday be used for inner-city commuting, and feel that electric power is the only sustainable way to go for such driving. This is why the vans have electric motors, even though much of their driving will be on highways and rural roads – as it says on the project’s website, “if the vehicles survive, we’ll be sure that they will survive in future urban applications too.” The batteries will be charged by generators in areas where no electricity is available.

Because not all the roads they will be traveling have been plotted, they can’t just navigate using electronic maps. Instead, human operators in the lead vehicle will take control and make navigational decisions when needed. If the lead vehicle is visible from the second vehicle, then it will follow simply using visual contact. If not, the second vehicle will determine the location of the lead vehicle via GPS, then use its onboard sensors to find its way there. Whenever someone does intervene in the driving of either one of the vehicles, the event will be logged and deducted from the total number of driving hours.

VisLab’s autonomous driving system incorporates stereo cameras, laser scanners, a 180-degree panoramic vision system, computers and actuators, all of which are powered by roof-mounted solar panels. The idea is that the system could be added to any existing vehicle, as opposed to only being available in purpose-built vehicles. As the trip progresses, all the data from all the sensors will be dumped into a database. This will allow the researchers to replay parts of the trip as desired, so they can refine existing algorithms or develop new ones. Functions that the team hopes to test will include vehicle, lane, pedestrian, obstacle and ditch detection, along with terrain mapping and slope estimation.

You can check the team’s progress and watch live streaming video from the vans on the VIAC website.

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