Italy to China with no maps — or drivers

Associated Press / October 29, 2010

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SHANGHAI — Across Eastern Europe, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Gobi Desert — it certainly was a long way to go without getting lost.

Four driverless electric vans successfully ended an 8,000-mile test drive from Italy to China — a modern-day version of Marco Polo’s journey around the world — with their arrival at the Shanghai Expo yesterday.

The vehicles, equipped with four solar-powered laser scanners and seven video cameras that work together to detect and avoid obstacles, are part of an experiment aimed at improving road safety and advancing automotive technology.

The sensors on the vehicles enabled them to navigate through wide extremes in road, traffic, and weather conditions, while collecting data to be analyzed for further research, in a study sponsored by the European Research Council.

“We didn’t know the route,’’ said Isabella Fredriga, an engineer for the project whose steering wheel was PC controlled.

Though the vans were driverless and mapless, they did carry researchers as passengers in case of emergencies. The experimenters did have to intervene a few times — when the vehicles got snarled in a Moscow traffic jam, and when they had to pay tolls.

The project used no maps, often traveling through remote regions of Siberia and China.

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.

The vehicles ran at maximum speeds of 38 miles per hour and had to be recharged for eight hours after every two to three hours of driving.

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