Just Asking: Driverless Vans Cruise From Italy to China

Oct 29, 2010
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Four vans drove from Rome to China—through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, Russia and Eastern Europe.

That's a long trip for any driver team, but these vans had no one behind the wheel for the entire 8,000-mile trek, making it the longest overland journey ever made by an unmanned vehicle.

These electric vans took the longest journey ever made by a driver-free vehicle. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, that's impossible, right?

How did cars travel so far without drivers?

Solar-powered scanners and video cameras detected and avoided obstacles. The vehicles' sensors allowed navigation through traffic, blizzards and rain storms, on dusty roads and super highways.

Why are driverless cars being made and tested?

Well, first because the technology is really cool. Second, to experiment on ways to improve road safety and—third—to advance automotive technology.

Really? No people were in the cars?

Okay, so researchers were in the cars as passengers to monitor the drive and jump in if there was a problem. They moved behind the wheel a few times: Once during a Russian traffic jam, and another time to pay a toll.

How did the vans know where to go?

No maps were used. The AP reports, "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."

How fast did they go?

The vehicles maxed out at 38 miles per hour and needed to be recharged for eight hours after every two to three hours of driving. One researcher noted it could be "monotonous and occasionally nerve-racking, inevitably due to human error." The trip took three months from start to finish.

The conclusion?

Regardless of the length of the trip, the stops and the road conditions, the people at Vislab, the Italian tech company that designed the vans, are very happy with the results.

CNN reports lead researcher Alberto Broggi said, "It's a real milestone in our field of vehicular robotics."

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million people die annually in car accidents. Maybe vehicle robots will lead to a higher car accident survival rate.

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