Team travels the Silk Road in driverless cars

An Italian engineering team has waved off two vehicles set to cover the 8,000 miles to China – without drivers.

While safety regulations mean there will have to be somebody in each car on the three-month journey, they’ll just sit back and relax unless there’s an emergency.

“Not only the vehicles are unmanned, but they run on electrical power and the whole electronic pilot is powered by solar energy, making this trip unique in history: goods packed in Italy will be brought to Shanghai on an intercontinental route with no human intervention and without using traditional fuel for the first time in history,” says the team.

The two vehicles have been developed by VisiLab, an artificial vision and intelligent systems lab at the University of Parma. They have the same sensor suite and control software, but different functions.

The first vehicle drives autonomously for most of the trip, conducting experimental tests on sensing, decision, and control subsystems. Although limited, human some intervention is needed to define the route and intervene in emergencies.

The second vehicle automatically follows the route defined by the first, and is 100 percent autonomous. If the leader is visisble, it follows using sensors; if not, it uses GPS coordinates sent by the leader.

The Piaggio Porter vans can travel at up to 40mpg, and need an eight-hour charge after every two or three hours of driving – making for a leisurely trip. The team is carrying petrol-powered generators just in case Mongolia turns out to be badly-equipped with charging stations.

The journey is being filmed and streamed on VisiLab’s website.