Driverless cars ride into Shanghai

Driverless cars ride into Shanghai

Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge tests their cars in the ultimate extreme conditions: Shanghai traffic
Driverless cars ride into Shanghai
These four cars might be the way to help prevent the 93 percent of road accidents caused by human error.

What’s a road trip like in a car that drives itself?

That’s the question research engineers at University of Parma’s Vislab set out to answer three months ago when they set off from Italy to cross the highways of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia and China on their way to the Shanghai 2010 Expo

They called it the Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge: 15,000 kilometers over two continents in all types of weather, road and traffic conditions. The engineers didn’t set off to demonstrate their technology but rather to put it to the ultimate test.

The crew managed to keep their eyes open as they entered the Shanghai city limits and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam.

“The idea here was to travel on a long route, on two different continents, in different states, different weather, different traffic conditions, different infrastructure,” says head of Vislab Professor Alberto Broggi. “Then we can have some huge number of situations to test the system on.”

Just to make the challenge more interesting, the four cars were electric and the driving system was solar powered.

The cars traveled two at a time, never more than 40 kilometers per hour, using seven cameras, four laser scanners, a GPS system and on-board computers to power the steering wheel and navigate the roads.

Driverless and safer

Professor Broggi believes autonomously driven vehicles are the way of the future.

“Right now 93 percent of all the road accidents are caused by human errors so if you can help the driver, or even remove the driver we might be able to solve this problem,” he says, quoting European statistics.

The system could be used by tractors, construction trucks, military vehicles, and for cars for the blind and disabled, he suggests.

“You can use this system on many different vehicles and have them work for you without anybody on board.”

(Article continues after the photo.)

Driverless cars ride into ShanghaiDriving through the Expo missing one important accessory, a driver.

On the road to Shanghai

The driverless cars met with plenty of adventures on their trip to Shanghai, encountering wildfires, soaring temperatures, donkeys, traffic cops, hitchhikers, and curious onlookers.

While riding in a driverless car sounds dangerous, the only accidents occurred because of human error, like when the crew forgot to turn the system off and the car continued to move forward, hitting the car ahead of it.

The idea here was to travel on a long route ... different weather, different traffic conditions, different infrastructure.— Alberto Broggi, Vislab Professor

What did the crew learn from their test?

The crew will return to Italy with 50 terabytes of data and countless videos to help them analyze and improve their driving system. But some of their most valuable data came from experiencing the conditions firsthand in the places they traveled through.

“I would not ever drive autonomously in Kazakhstan anymore. Not even on a regular car,” Fredriga says, remembering the awful traffic they encountered there. “I would perhaps prefer a donkey.”

So, with no need to keep an eye on the road, how did they pass the time on such a long trip? It turns out, the autonomous driving system worked so well, that the crew spent much of their time, well, a bit bored. When your car is driving for you, there’s plenty of time to doze off at the wheel.

“I had a chance to look around and enjoy the view. That was nice … sometimes even boring. And often I fell asleep,” research engineer Isabella Fredriga admitted a bit sheepishly.

The crew managed to keep their eyes open as they entered the Shanghai city limits and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam.

Rebecca Kanthor is an American freelance writer and producer based in Shanghai.
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