Back in July, two all-electric, driverless vans set out from Italy bound for China, an 8,000-mile trek through two continents, several countries, and endless driving variables like traffic, weather conditions, and roadway conditions. A few dings and only a handful of human interventions later, the vans arrived at the Shanghai Expo today, marking the first transcontinental journey by driverless vehicles that we’ve heard about.
The vans – which carried technicians to run the sophisticated computer and sensor systems as well as to take the wheel if a situation turned dangerous – operated without human stimulus or direction for nearly the entire trip using an artificial vision system called GOLD (Generic Obstacle and Lane Detection). The system analyzed the roadway ahead and the lane markers on the road, adjusting the wheel, acceleration, and braking to keep the van cruising comfortably down the road.
That’s pretty impressive, considering the vans forged through everything from Moscow traffic to remote regions of Siberia and the Gobi Desert. Running at a maximum speed of 38 miles per hour, the toughest obstacles seemed to be the least daunting; while the human teams had to intervene once in Moscow gridlock, the only recurring obstacle requiring human intervention were tolling stations.
Otherwise, the four solar-charged laser sensors and seven video cameras on each van performed well in variable weather conditions and in sometimes adverse driving conditions. There were no maps; the vans found their own route to Shanghai. One van even pulled over at one point to offer a hitchhiker a lift.
The trip was less a demonstration and more a data-gathering experiment. The reams of information collected from the sensor suite will be used to improve the vision system, correct mistakes in computer judgment, and hopefully to program in a stern warning about the dangers of picking up shiftless drifters on remote stretches of highway.