A group of researchers from University of Parma‘s Artificial Vision and Intelligent Systems Laboratory – known as VisLab –  got tired of testing their autonomous vehicle in the lab. Then, they decided to leave on a 13000 km road trip all the way to Shanghai. A 3 months trip that started on July 10th from Parma and will reach its destination on October 10th, right on time for the 2010 World Expo in China.

As its known for all researchers, the way of science is full of obstacles. For this group of Italian researchers, one of the main obstacles came in the form of a Russian Policeman that stopped the car and noticed it had no driver.

You can read more about this interesting journey at IEEE Spectrum Magazine.

“When you do things in the lab, it all really works. But when you go out in a real road, with real traffic, real weather, it’s another story,” says Alberto Broggi, VisLab’s director and an engineering professor at Parma University.

That’s how the idea for their Parma-Shanghai trip, which is partially funded by the European Research Council, came about. The goal is to test, and later perfect, their vision and navigation systems, which the researchers hope to one day deploy on commercial vehicles.

Unlike the Darpa vehicles, the VisLab van is not driving fully autonomously from start to finish. That approach would require at least a rough map of the complete route, Broggi says, adding that they lack maps for locations like Mongolia and Kazakhstan. So instead of programming the trajectory ahead of time, the Italians adopted a simpler, though still challenging, approach.

Two vans travel in line. The first uses maps and GPS to drive itself whenever possible, but a human driver is in control most of the time. The second van uses its cameras and navigation system to follow the first; it visually tracks the lead van, plans a trajectory in real time, and generates controls for steering and accelerating or braking. (If a car gets in between the two vans, the second van guides itself using GPS instructions it receives from the leader.)