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Driverless vans hit the roadways for three months

Italian engineers are putting driverless technology to the test with an 8,000-mile three-month trek that will take a pair of vans from Italy to China. Each van will have one technician in the driver’s seat, but only to take control of the vehicle if an accident seems imminent. Otherwise the vans will be completely controlled by seven cameras, four laser scanners, and enough computer software to tell it how to stop, accelerate, turn, avoid obstacles, et cetera. The driverless-ish vans will follow a manned lead van being driven normally through everything from Moscow traffic to curvy mountain roads and from weather conditions ranging from the summer heat of Siberia to the bitter cold of the Gobi desert.

VisLabs, which is conducting the test, hopes to collect more than 100 terabytes of data from two pairs of two vans. They decided to bring in another set of vans because the batteries that power the electric motors in each van require eight hours of charging for every two to three hours on the road (the van’s autonomous controls and sensors are powered by a solar panel that sits atop the car). To cut back on the amount of time necessary to complete the journey, one pair will drive, while the other pair is in tow via another pair of trucks; we can imagine this caravan will not be hard to miss.

The test is designed to give more insight into preparing this technology for use in the military or transcontinental shipping: cutting man hours required for shipping supplies or even reduce the number of troops or contractors put in danger in a military convoy. The experiment started Tuesday in Parma, Italy, and, with each day producing at least four hours of driving, the engineers hope they will arrive in Shanghai, China, in October; the vans are limited to a top speed of 37 miles an hour.

We can’t help but bridge the gap to when this technology may one day mean autonomous driving for us all, or at least on our congested highways and byways. In some ways it may be a necessary evil; cutting back on the number of hours we all spend on the roadways by ridding it of all the minutes and seconds we waste when we rubberneck, slow down for merging traffic, and the vast difference in speed and following distance between human drivers in even ideal conditions. These types of projects could give our streets assembly-line-like precision, with one car exiting just as the cars behind speed up to fill the void.

These kinds of thoughts are not on the team’s mind. Right now they are more worried about finding places to recharge the vehicles’ batteries in the more remote areas.

[via Popular Science]

Driverless vans that will make the 3-month journey

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Posted by: Benjamin Greene
Posted on: 7/22/2010 at 3:58 AM
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