Rome-to-Shanghai Without a Driver

By Bill Moore

Posted: 08 Sep 2010

Ekaterinburg will always be remembered, at least in my mind, for one of history's most tragic episodes, the assassination of Czar Nicholas III and his family on July 16, 1918. Years ago, I spent some time reading and researching the event as part of an effort to create a period spy thriller of an abortive British attempt to rescue them.

Today, the queen city in the Urals boasts a population of one and a half million. It is described as a "powerful industrial and research centre" with the focus on "heavy transport and chemical engineering plants, non-ferrous metallurgical works and military industrial enterprises." It is the home of some 15 academic institutions including the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It is also a waypoint this week for an unusual expedition of electric vehicles driving from Rome and Shanghai.

Meet the Vislab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge in which four electrically-propelled Piaggio Porter microvans, and a caravan of support vehicles, are attempting to make a significant part of the journey autonomously, in other words, without a driver.

Yes, you read that correctly: without a driver. It is the most ambitious self-guided vehicle program to date, picking up where the DARPA Grand Challenge left off.

In part because of the limited range and speeds of the electric microvans, the trip is being made in relatively modest stages with the vehicles being recharged from generators onboard the support vehicles. Two of the autonomous vehicles are in operation at any one time: a lead vehicle with an attendant driver monitoring the vehicle and the road ahead, and a driverless follow-on vehicle.

As would be expected, the team has to deal with all sorts of unexpected contingencies, like waking up in the middle of Russia to find that someone has turned off the generators in the middle of the night, presumably because of their noise, and the vehicles are only half-charged, requiring a four hour delay in the morning.

With all the data the team is collecting, they believe that someday it will be possible to make the entire journey without driver intervention. You simply program the vehicle and send it on its way. But interestingly, the sheer amount of data being collected is enormous and requires huge amounts of storage, itself a time-consuming task, the team notes in their blog.

Contrast this to the nearly identical journey earlier this summer from Shanghai to Paris by Xavier Chevrin and Geraldine Gabin, the French couple driving a single Venturi-equipped Citroen Berlingo electric delivery van. Where the Autonomous Challenge requires something like ten vehicles and a team of support staff, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars computer hardware, the combined brainpower of two French school teachers was sufficient to handle all the contingencies along nearly the same route.

It just goes to show you how far we've come in our EV world and how far we've yet to go towards a driverless one.

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