In July, an Italian company, VisLab, began a three-month journey from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China. But it wasn't just any road trip. Their odyssey involves their autonomous vehicle, a bright orange van that drives itself along city streets and small highways. "The VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge" is the longest and most difficult test of autonomous vehicles to date. Previously, many of the research team members had competed in a related autonomous driving competition held in California, which had been sponsored by the United States Department of Defense. Deutsche Welle spoke with the leader of VisLab, Alberto Broggi, who leads the project and is a professor of computer engineering at the University of Parma.
Deutsche Welle: How many weeks has it been now that your van has been out on the road?
Alberto Broggi: We have been there for four weeks now, exactly one month. We've been traveling for roughly 2,500 kilometers [about 1,500 miles].
How has it been going so far? I've seen that there have been some bureaucratic problems. Has it gone as you expected?
So far it's been kind of smooth. We've had some little problems with bureaucracy, and a little bit with the technology, but mainly bureaucracy. The vision system has been working nicely. We have learned some things about our minor problems when we had our little accident.
It was at the end of one day, people were done for the day, they switched off everything except the autonomous driver, which was on, and the vehicle started moving and it crashed into the vehicle in front. It was a very slow crash because they were very close, they were only four meters apart. The speed was not high, but we learned that the design of the autonomous driver has to be improved. And actually we have to improve some kind of visual warning related to the presence of some system in the "on" position. So whenever there is something that is on, we should be warned.
So it hit another car in public, or it hit another van in your caravan?
It hit one of our vans, and it was on the side of the road. We were parked. Everybody was sitting there beside the vehicles and talking, and nobody was taking care of the vehicles. Nobody had the emergency stop, and then one started moving. We now have a little dent of the vehicle in front, and I'm sure that we will not fix it; it's now part of our history, and part of our trip.
For those of our readers who didn't see the first interview that I did with you, can you remind us just a little bit about how this works. You have two vans, and one is following the other autonomously, right?
Exactly. The first one is driven by a human, and the second one follows. The second one looks for the first vehicle. If the first vehicle is visible, then the second vehicle will follow it. If the first vehicle isn't visible, then the second vehicle will just follow the GPS information that the first vehicle is sending back. So the second vehicle is just using its local sensing to determine the best position on the road, and to determine the maneuver.
And that was one of the problems that we had when we entered Moscow. So when we entered Moscow, the second vehicle was following the first vehicle and that was fine. But then someone cut in between the two vehicles, and this is something that normally happens, so it was nothing to worry about. But in that particular case, the other traffic was so chaotic, it was so crowded that no one was respecting the rules. We were in a two-lane road, but there were three or four cars in a row. So lane markings were just forgotten by the vehicles. Everybody was over the lane markings. Our vehicle on the other hand was following the rules and was trying to find the lane markings and stay between them. That means that our behavioral model was different than the rest of the traffic. So we had to turn back to manual mode.
When you say manual mode, you mean being driven by a human?
Yes, you can take over whenever you want. In that case, the people on the vehicle thought it was safer to stop the autonomous driving and drive manually. Because our vehicle was driving to stay in the middle of the lane and the other traffic was not.
That's very interesting. Have there been a lot of moments like that, where you've had to intervene? Does this kind of thing happen a lot?
Not really. This happened in Moscow because it was very crowded and the other traffic was not respecting the rules, and it happened when we had to pay the toll station. We were reaching a toll station. The second vehicle doesn't know that you have to stop and pay. That's another nice story to tell about - we now know that these toll stations exist. There were some glitches that pushed us to go back to manual. Yesterday we had a fault in our speedometer, it was not working. It was giving 100 kph, but we were driving at 50 kph, so we had to go back to manual. It was a fault in our system.
There have been a few situations like this, but nothing as important as when we entered Moscow. We really learned that you really can't rely on a single driving mode, like we have now. We need to adapt to the local traffic, and we need to learn how local traffic moves. And if people do not respect the rules and do not respect the lane markings, then we shouldn't either.
We're speaking on Thursday, August 26. Where is the vehicle right now?
They are in Saratov, which is about 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow. They left Moscow five or six days ago and they are traveling and today they are stopped for a presentation and a demonstration. The next stop will be Kazan on September 1st.
Since the van left Italy, you haven't seen it, right?
No, I'm still here in Parma.
Does your team check in with you every day? Are you following it online? How are you connected to what's happening on the road?
Every three or four hours, we get a phone call and people tell me how they're working and the problems they have - not only myself but the team here in Parma. We have a team here working with them in Russia. […] We will send new hardware on September 1, when there will be the next switch of people there.
Can you give us a preview of what you expect to happen in the next month?
The most important change will be weather, because right now we've been traveling in sunny, hot weather. We're going to be going in areas where the weather will be bad and this will threaten our systems. I'm thinking about Siberia as one of the most difficult areas. The roads will be unpaved; there will be big holes on the roads and dust. It will be raining a lot and the weather will be bad. This is the biggest problem that we might have.
The vehicle will go towards Novosibirsk, in Siberia, about 3,000 kilometers east of Moscow, and then down south to Kazakhstan and then east towards Shanghai.
Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Kate Bowen