Robot vans begin 3-month Italy-China journey

Two self-driving robot vans have started a three-month, 8,000-mile journey from Italy to China. What would Marco Polo say?

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read


Self-driving electric vans have begun an epic journey from Italy to China that will take them through Siberia and the Gobi Desert in a quest to demonstrate autonomous driving technology.

The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge began in front of the Milan Cathedral on Tuesday with a goal of traveling 8,000 miles to Shanghai by the end of October (follow the trek at the VIAC blog here).

The two heavily modified Piaggio Porter Electric vans will play various roles en route to Shanghai. Both, however, carry technicians who take control when needed.

Team members will take control of the lead vehicle "every time a decision on the road has to be taken," according to the organizers, but it drives autonomously most of the time. The main function of the lead vehicle is to navigate, since there are no maps for some parts of the route.

Interior of an autonomous Piaggio Porter Electric van.
Interior of an autonomous Piaggio Porter Electric van. VisLab

The lead vehicle will send out GPS locations via radio that will be picked up by the follower van, which also uses its cameras and laser scanners to aid navigation and avoid obstacles like cars and people (see details here). Drivers will take control in emergency situations.

The vans are topped with solar panels that power the computer processors, sensors, and driving actuators, but not the vans themselves, which retain their original electric power systems.

The vans have a top speed of 37 mph and are expected to drive only four hours a day due to recharging needs; the engineers will use gasoline generators if they can't find a power outlet in remote regions. A truck carrying alternate vans is part of the convoy.

Funded by a $2.3 million grant from the European Research Council, engineers at VisLab, part of the University of Parma, are leading the odyssey to determine conditions that cause autonomous driving technology to fail.

A recent demonstration in which the vans entered a congested traffic circle resulted in a communication breakdown between the vehicles, forcing manual driving, according to an Associated Press article.

The expedition is expected to collect about 100 terabytes of data on vehicle performance. The organizers want to test self-driving vehicles in more complex and extreme environments than those used in the DARPA Grand Challenge of 2005 and the DARPA Urban Challenge of 2007. VisLab participated in both through the TerraMax autonomous trucks.

Some of the tech developed from the trek to China could go into self-driving farming and mining vehicles under cooperation between VisLab and heavy machinery maker Caterpillar.

To my chagrin, it seems VisLab director Alberto Broggi believes driverless vehicles are still 20 years away. I'm still waiting for that day when I can play a car racing video game while cruising down the highway in my robot car. I saw it once on "Knight Rider."