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The bright orange driverless vans drove across two continents to reach Shanghai in time for the Expo. A
STR STR
The bright orange driverless vans drove across two continents to reach Shanghai in time for the Expo. A

From Europe to China with no driver

Are the machines taking over? A group of vans take an epic journey without drivers.

It is like something out of a science fiction film: vehicles without drivers that travelled for thousands of kilometres across cities, deserts and plains.

Four orange vans that made their way from Europe to China recently were, however, very much real when they rolled into Shanghai late last month.

What is more, the technology that took them across two continents could, researchers predict, find its way into everyday vehicles in the near future. If it does, the implications could be far reaching, extending beyond just giving the embattled commuter a break on his or her journey into the office.

It could, some have suggested, change the nature of car ownership, with consequences manufacturers are unlikely to welcome.

In a project sponsored by the European Research Council, the quartet of vans made their way without maps or drivers from Italy to Shanghai, where they arrived as Expo 2010 drew to a close. Each of the pint-sized vans had seven video cameras and two laser scanners powered by the sun that sent signals to onboard computers that controlled the steering, accelerator and brakes.

At any one time, there were two people on board each vehicle, one in the passenger seat looking after the computers, the other in the driver's seat ready to intervene in case of emergency.

Indeed there were a few times when intervention was essential, such as when there were toll stations and severe traffic jams. But for most of the time, the vehicles did their own thing thanks to the Generic Obstacle and Lane Detector system they were equipped with.

After starting the marathon trip in Italy in late July, the four vehicles covered almost 13,000km over three months, driving along every type of road imaginable, from the high-rise urban jungle to the broad expanses of Siberia.

"It was great. It will be a milestone. It's a huge thing for our laboratory - it's never happened that a vehicle has travelled for so long and so many kilometres while autonomous," said Alberto Broggi, a professor in the Vislab of the University of Parma in Italy who led the project.

Batteries had to be charged for about eight hours after just two to three hours of driving, and at any one time two vans drove themselves, the others being pulled by trucks. Four motorhomes travelled with the 20-strong group of researchers.

Now the project is finished, the researchers will spend many weeks analysing the vast amounts of data recorded.

"The most important lesson we learnt is that you really need to adapt to the local traffic pattern. You have to follow what's happening around you," said Broggi.

Although the system can control a car on a wide motorway where the traffic tends to flow freely, more complex urban environments pose greater challenges. Bicycles and pedestrians create an unpredictable element to city driving that, without a person to assist in an emergency, the current technology can occasionally struggle to cope with. It might take a further two decades, Broggi estimated, before a foolproof way of dealing with such hazards is developed.

In five to eight years, Broggi estimated, the technology could be at a stage where, in the real world, it could take over from drivers in less-demanding multiple-lane highways, rather than in city-centre environments.

The most obvious current application is in more utilitarian fields where things are less prone to chance.

Think of tractors that can plough fields on their own, or vehicles that operate deep underground in mines. The system could, according to Broggi, already be applied in such ways, and his team is collaborating with companies interested in taking the technology to market. It could mean no more monotonous days at the wheel of a combine harvester.

"Maybe they would not be completely autonomous, but partly autonomous and partly supervised," he said.

So while we probably won'tsee driverless road cars in the immediate future, the wealth of interest in the subject suggests this is likely to happen eventually.

Some road cars are already equipped with systems that can automatically apply brakes and detect pedestrians, slowing or stopping the vehicle to prevent an impact. Indeed, researchers have been fascinated by driverless vehicles for more than three decades.

Early on, much interest centred on cars able to track white lines on the road, although later on vehicles were able to demonstrate more sophisticated autonomous behaviour, such as changing lanes and overtaking. As with the recent Italy-to-China project, in many cases humans were on hand to intervene in an emergency.

In one of the latest and biggest projects Google recently announced it had completed more than 225,000km with driverless vehicles in California. Observers have speculated a company such as Google is keen on autonomous vehicles because they free up drivers for tech-related activities such as surfing the web.

While tech firms might be happy to see cars drive themselves, automotive manufacturers may be less keen. If such vehicles became the norm, our view of car ownership could change.

If travelling in a car really was just a way of getting from A to B, if the driver no longer felt the rush of adrenaline when pressing the throttle and taking a corner briskly, would anyone spend Dh100,000 on the latest high-performance vehicle from Munich, Detroit or Toyota City?

Outlandish predictions have talked of a world where private car ownership is a thing of the past. Instead, roads would be populated by autonomous vehicles that took people to wherever they wanted to go, dropped them off and collected the next passenger - a vast army of taxis without taxi drivers.

John Zeng, director of the Asia vehicle forecasting section of JD Power and Associates in Shanghai, said, in his country at least, manufacturers have little to worry about, for now at least.

Driving standards are such that he thinks driverless cars will need to be developed much more before they can be unleashed on the roads. With swerving between lanes without signalling and other bad manners commonplace in China, he said current driverless cars would struggle.

"The system would probably work in more mature driving environments," he said. "It might work in Europe or North America, because people have a much longer history [of driving] and they have a proper driving culture."

As well as having individual vehicles that can sense their environment and respond to it, he envisages a way of controlling traffic in which all vehicles are linked to a management system that keeps everything flowing.

"People would just sit in their cars and the system would control them," he said. "That's the idea behind some subway systems: [they are] controlled by central control centres and you don't need drivers.

"The subway can run by itself, but on the road it's much more difficult to handle. It depends on how the system can be developed to cope with that environment."

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