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Italian engineers launch 8,000-mile road test of driverless cars

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As reported this week by The Associated Press (AP), a team of Italian engineers launched on Tuesday what has been billed as the longest-ever test drive of driverless vehicles.

Two bright orange cars, equipped with laser scanners and cameras to detect objects, will make an 8,000-mile trek (dubbed The Vislab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge) from Italy to China to test the limits of this new technology. The cars, which departed Parma on Tuesday, July 20, are powered entirely by solar energy.

"What we are trying to do is stress our systems and see if they can work in a real environment, with real weather, real traffic and crazy people who cross the road in front of you and a vehicle that cuts you off," project leader Alberto Broggi told the AP.

The technology was developed by VisLab, an artificial vision and intelligent systems lab at the University of Parma run by Broggi, through a $2.3 million grant from the European Commission's European Research Council. VisLab has also partnered with other sponsors, including Piaggio, which has provided its Piaggio Porter vans.

In the future, this technology might lead to driverless vehicles transporting goods across Europe, notes the AP. But the technology's applications could be of use today as well: the scanners could soon allow farmers to program tractors to plow and seed fields through the night, Broggi said. VisLab is also working with Caterpiller Inc., to develop unmanned vehicle technology for extreme environments, like mining, according to the article.

Viewers can follow the vehicles' progress online at viac.vislab.it/, a special website dedicated to the challenge.

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