Drivers need not apply

A group of Italian scientists launched a test of two driverless vehicles yesterday that actually fits nicely with a recent report from the Volvo Group (NYSE: VOLVY.PK) suggesting driver interaction with trucks may not be as prevalent years from now.

vislab.jpgThe test by the Italians involves driving two vans equipped with lasers and cameras from Italy to Shanghai, a trip expected to take about three months covering 8,000 or so miles. The vehicles will be powered by electricity generated by solar energy.

“What we are trying to do is stress our systems and see if they can work in a real environment, with real weather, real traffic and crazy people who cross the road in front of you and a vehicle that cuts you off,” project leader Alberto Broggi told the Associated Press.

It’s an ambitious goal, of course, but safety has not been set aside. According to the team, a vehicle with technicians will lead each of the two vans to fix glitches and also to intervene in the case of an emergency.

“We will definitely need some help by humans. It is not possible to have 100% driverless. This is why I call it a test, not a demonstration,” Broggi said.

The technology was developed by Vislab, an artificial intelligence company run by Broggi at the University of Parma. According to the Associated Press, Vislab is working with Caterpillar to develop unmanned vehicles for mining applications.

The project is being funded from a $2.3 million grant from the European Commission’s European Research Council.

The company has set up a website to allow people to track the vehicles’ progress through the test. The site has information as well as live tracking capabilities. Click here to follow the test.

This project may seem futuristic, but the brilliant engineers at Volvo also think it may have practical applications in the future. A few weeks ago, Volvo unveiled its Concept Truck 2020, a futuristic look at technologies, both those available today and possibly in the future, and concepts that may change the look and productivity of trucks.

Among the items the Concept Truck 2020 project addressed is driver interaction. That is addressed in the idea that trucks travel long distances in “trains” where vehicles are linked together electronically.

“This will be possible when the transport sector’s vision of green corridors becomes reality,” says Rikard Orell, design director. “Here heavy goods vehicles are separated from other traffic, driving in their own lanes, like a railway but without rails.”

Advantages to this, the report notes, include road safety, decreased costs, less wear and tear on roads, lower fuel consumption and a drop in CO2 emissions due to reduced drag as trucks are slipstreamed together.

The other advantage, the company says, is the driver may be able to rest behind the wheel as “the truck drives itself. If this is counted as idle time, transport times can be cut, deliveries will be made more quickly and drivers can get back to their families and friends earlier.

“Progress is getting ever faster,” Orell says. “Because of this our vision for the future is not that far away. Much of the technology in the Volvo Concept Truck 2020 is already available; other technology needs to be developed. One needs to dare stride firmly into the debate, demonstrating what one can and will do. Just tinkering at the edges runs the risk of progress slipping away.”

How soon will we see any of this become everyday reality? It will probably be a long time given that scientists had predicted years ago we’d be travelling in flying cars by now – Jetsons style – and that has yet materialize.

But it’s fun to dream.


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