Italy is sending two unmanned vans powered by the sun on a trek across continents to China.

For the first time Italy is sending automated vehicles on a long road drive from Parma, Italy to Shanghai, China. The vans themselves are modified Piaggio Porter Electric vans and modified extensively for the mission that they now face. Each van is equipped with a large solar panel mounted on the roof, this provides all of the power needed by the vehicle. The vehicles are also equipped with computers in the rear that provide stopping and avoidance countermeasures should anyone cross paths with the vans during their 3 month long trek. Cameras and other sensors mounted around the van feed the computers with data concerning road conditions and obstacles they may encounter.

While the vans are designed to be fully automated human technicians will be making decisions on which routes to take along the way. GPS data and maps for some of the areas being driven are unavailable, otherwise the engineers would not need to update route decisions as the journey unfolds. For the areas where GPS and mapping data are available, the vans will make their own decisions and travel without human intervention. The lead van will be controlled by humans that will be plotting routes and stops as necessary while the follow van itself is automated, it will taking commands and navigation from the lead van at all times. In the event something happens there will be drivers in the follow van to intervene as necessary.

The vans and the technology driving them are less than perfect however. The vans have a top speed of a mere 37mph, which is hardly ideal for commuting to and from work each day on super highways. The vans themselves are still powered by their stock power system, with the solar panels providing all of the power necessary to operate the computers, sensors and drive actuators. Whenever plugin locations can not be utilized to recharge the batteries contained in the cars, oil based generators will be utilized to rechrage the vehicles. The long distance trek is designed to provide valuable data on why automated vehicles might fail and what circumstances have not been predicted and accounted for in the software controlling the vans. In the event something goes terribly wrong a following truck houses additional vans to continue the journey.

For twitter watchers the vehicles have been equipped with GSM smart phones that will update CO2 levels and other data from the vans as they travel. For internet viewers in general live camera feeds from some of the cameras on the vans will be broadcast and streamed for all to see.

It will be interesting to see how well these vehicles perform

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