Italy – the land of Pasta, Pizza, hot Roman nights and now cool, self-roamin’ semi-autonomous vehicles on their way to China.
A group of Italian engineers has decided to put their camera where their car is and document a trip from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China using their meticulously designed, no-driver-required vehicles. Project leader Alberto Broggi and his team plan to use two specially equipped, bright orange vans to test out the capabilities of their driverless system on the narrow roads of the Italian countryside, the rushin’ streets of Moscow, and crazy, crazy highways of mainland China. (Yes, that’s two puns involving apostrophes in two paragraphs. Deal with it.)
The vans use a system of cameras and laser scanners to document and respond to hazards in the environment. Currently, the unmanned vehicle is required to take its cues from a “lead van” that sets the route, but is theoretically able to respond to ordinary hazards that are flung into its path. The idea behind the giant road trip (sans beer, sadly) is to test out just how many hazards these orange operations can take before they start catastrophically failing.
With failure in mind, the team has wisely decided to equip the camera vans with two technicians – one in the driver’s seat to press the red “stop this thing, I wanna get off!” button should something go wrong, and one in the back to monitor the equipment.
The team fully admits that this is not the future of the autonomous automotive industry, but merely the glimmers of its beginning. Not only do the vans require the human touch to ensure their smooth operation, but they can currently only operate for two hours on the road before needing an eight-hour recharge of all of their systems. For this reason, the team is using two sets of vans for this epic journey and plans to get only four hours of driving in per day.
Tests at home base in Italy have already revealed a number of problems – a busy traffic circle caused an abort after the auto-van got cut off from the lead van – but the team relishes such challenges. In fact, the hope is to see where the limitations of the camera and scanner systems lie so that they can be improved and require less use of the panic button.
Conservative estimates from the team place fully autonomous driving at least 20 years in the future, and some analysts question the need for it at all. In a large, tractor-trailer sense, replacing one driver on a night haul from Branson, MI to Eugene, OR doesn’t make much sense – the cost/benefit just doesn’t pan out.
Concept autonomous car: slighly lame.
For city applications, however, cabs with no operators or busses that simply knew where to go and when to stop could significantly cut costs. The trouble is the fact that city driving inherently presents greater challenges – pedestrians who treat the entire downtown core of a city as a crosswalk, for example – which will make safe implementation of the technology problematic.
We can only imagine the insurance nightmare after the first autonomous car versus other autonomous car accident.