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Robotic car

July 23, 2010

University of Parma scientists have pioneered robotic cars that can navigate on their own. They are about to drive from Italy to China and plan to arrive by mid-October.

The car will travel about 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles) between Italy and ChinaImage: VisLab

In 2004, scientists from around the world battled it out in the DARPA Grand Challenge, the first long-distance driverless car competition held in the middle of the California desert. Of the 15 teams that competed in that event sponsored by the United States Department of Defense research wing (DARPA), none actually finished the course. But researchers had two more chances, in 2005 and 2007, and those challenges did have winners.

Now, an Italian company called VisLab, staffed by many who designed one of the vehicles in previous DARPA challenges, is now taking their car to an entirely new level. Instead of driving on a pre-determined course, VisLab's car will drive, on its own, from Parma, Italy, to Shanghai, China, over the next three months. The team has dubbed the tour "The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge," which will begin next week.

Deutsche Welle spoke with the leader of VisLab, Alberto Broggi, who is a professor of computer engineering at the University of Parma.

Deutsche Welle: How exactly will your autonomous car get from Italy to China?

Roboter Auto
Broggi (left) will check in with the car along its three-month journeyImage: VisLab

Alberto Broggi: Actually there will be two vehicles. The first vehicle will be manned, and that vehicle will define the route. The second vehicle will be following it automatically. So if the first vehicle is in line of sight then the second vehicle will look at it and follow it. If the vehicle is not visible from the second one, in that case the first vehicle broadcasts its GPS position to the second one and the second one would follow a rough idea of the route given by the GPS points. This is a trick that we use.

Walk me through how you expect this car to function. What exactly is it doing when it's moving?

We have seven cameras on the car. Five in the front and two in the back. The five in the front are divided into two systems. One is a stereo system: two cameras. And the other is a panoramic system: three cameras. So the stereo system just looks in front and detects obstacles and lane markings, and let's say close to medium-range detection. Then we have a three camera system which is a panoramic view. We have one camera exactly in front, one sixty degrees on the right and one 60 degrees on the left. And you put all these three images together to get one single big image of the world around. It's not 180 degrees, it's a little less, but you can imagine that as a 180 degree image. And that is used to locate the vehicle in front. These are the two visions systems in front.

Plus, we have four laser scanners. We have two simple laser scanners on the side which monitor the presence of obstacles on the left and right-hand side. Plus we have one more penetrating laser scanner in the front and that's used to detect obstacles in the front of the vehicle. Plus we have another laser scanner which is placed on the top of the car and it looks down to detect ditches, burns, holes in the ground and it's used for off-road driving.

You're going to be crossing a lot of territory and in a handful of different countries. I understand that you had to get special permission to drive this type of vehicle across all these different countries?

Stadt Shanghai
Shanghai is the team's final destinationImage: DW

Actually, luckily we are not in charge of this. There's another company which is with us, which is called Overland. They're taking care of all the logistics and all the permission and the visas and so on. They have been working on this for a number of years and they have already organized a number of extreme travel trips throughout the world. They already know how to manage these things.

But presumably they haven't done it with a robotic, autonomous car?

Yes. Actually, I've been talking to the people here in Italy regarding the liability issues. They told me that as long as there's a guy sitting behind the steering wheel he will be responsible for that car - even if he's not touching the steering wheel. If you are sitting there, you are the responsible guy. Even if the car might move without anybody on board, someone will be sitting there.

The DARPA Challenges and what you're doing push the limits of robotics and transportation. What applications do you see for this type of research? Where do you do expect that it will go? And do you think that regular people might be able to benefit from this?

Definitely. The answer is yes, but not now. It will take a few years. I think that the very first application would be the agricultural domain in which you could have your autonomous tractor move along your field 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without anybody on board. I'm saying this because the agricultural maze is much easier than the normal city traffic. There are military applications as well, even civil applications like road construction areas in which vehicles can move without anybody on board or for mining or in other harsh environments. I'm sure that one day this technology will also be on cars. But I think this will be the very last application.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico