Sort of like the headless horseman where a team of Italian engineers on Tuesday launched what has been billed as the longest-ever test drive of driverless vehicles: an 8,000-mile, three-month road trip from Italy to China, not in search of silk, but to test the limits of future automotive technology.
Two bright orange vehicles, equipped with laser scanners and cameras that work in concert to detect and help avoid obstacles, are to brave the traffic of Moscow, the summer heat of Siberia and the bitter cold of the Gobi desert before the planned arrival in Shanghai at the end of October.
“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,” said project leader Alberto Broggi.
The road trip consists of two pairs of vehicles, each with a driven lead van followed by a driverless vehicle occupied by two technicians, whose job is to fix glitches and take over the wheel in case of an emergency.
The driverless vehicle takes cues from the lead van, but will have to respond to any ordinary obstacles or dangers. The two pairs alternate stretches along the route to China.
“We will definitely need some help by humans. It is not possible to have 100 percent driverless. This is why I call it a test, not a demonstration,” Broggi said. One of the environmental advantages of no human drivers is that they won’t throw trash out the windows!!