Skip to main content

A technician controls an unmanned electric-powered vehicle in Parma, Italy by a remote device. Today, four electric-powered orange vans depart on what has been conceived as the longest-ever test drive of unmanned vehicles: a 13,000-kilometer (8,000-mile), three-month road trip from Italy to China. The vehicles, equipped with four laser scanners and seven video cameras that work in concert to detect and help avoid obstacles, will brave the traffic of Moscow, the intense summer heat of Siberia and the bitter cold of the Gobi desert before the planned arrival in Shanghai at the end of October

Antonio Calanni/AP/Antonio Callani

As two small cars embark on a journey from Italy to China, they're missing only one thing for the 13,000-kilometre trip: drivers. On Tuesday, a team of engineers in Italy embarked on the longest test-drive of a driverless vehicle yet.

Robotic technology is constantly improving and evolving, working out its kinks and generating better models. In the meantime, the skies, seas and rails are already dotted with automated vehicles. Still, some scientists say it will be at least 20 years before you can take your hands off the wheel during your morning commute.

In Canada, the focus is on safety, says Transport Canada spokesperson Mélanie Quesnel - which is why, for now, all cars must have a driver. But the technology is catching up. An advanced radar system detects the presence of pedestrians on the roadway, and stops the vehicle before it hits anyone. This is showing promise, Ms. Quesnel says.

Story continues below advertisement

"Ultimately, it is the role of component and vehicle manufacturers to develop and improve the technologies," Ms. Quesnel said. "If Transport Canada detects any safety issues, the department will make the manufacturer aware of our findings."

Cars: Italy's Electric Porter Piaggio

Italy's Electric Porter Piaggio made headlines Tuesday as the car of choice for Vislab's cross-continental test drive. Electric in their power source and colour - bright orange - the test cars are equipped with sensors and laser cameras to help them detect and avoid obstacles. Two technicians will be in each vehicle to handle any technological glitches or take over the wheel in case of emergency. The cars follow a set of non-automated vans, convoy-style.

Technicians encountered a problem turning off the lot in a test drive last Thursday. A car got between the van and the test car, cutting off communication. The technician had to take the wheel to merge with traffic.

In North America, Lexus already advertises a car that parallel parks on its own, and General Motors unveiled its new driverless car at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Planes: U.S. Military's Predator and Reaper

The first unmanned aerial vehicle was developed in 1916, technology improved during the First and Second World Wars, and by the 1980s militaries were using drones regularly. The U.S. military's Predator is perhaps the best known. General Atomics released the model in 1995, and the planes are primarily used by the U.S. Air Force, with a price tag of $4.5-million each. The Predator is mostly a reconnaissance vehicle, but can also carry and shoot two missiles. Pilots control the planes from the ground. The U.S. Air Force has used the Predator in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. More than one-third have crashed, which pilots on the ground have blamed on clunky controls.

Story continues below advertisement

The Reaper is faster, more powerful, and costs $10.5-million to produce. The United States uses the Reaper as a fighter in Afghanistan, and to monitor its own borders back home. As of 2009, the U.S. Air Force's fleet stands at 195 Predators and 28 Reapers. Pentagon officials have called the drones their most effective weapon against al-Qaeda.

Trains: Vancouver's SkyTrain

Vancouver's SkyTrain, which zips around the waterfront city on an elevated 50-kilometre track, is the world's largest system of driverless trains. Many of these systems exist between airport terminals in large cities, but Vancouver's automated train system covers the entire city. The first track opened in 1986, and the most recent Canada Line opened just before the 2010 Olympics. Driverless trains were first introduced in 1983 in France, and currently operate in more than 30 cities around the world. Not one has ever had a serious accident.

In June, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California financed a study to develop a personal rapid-transit system to link the airport with other transit hubs. These pod cars move at approximately 40 km/h along an elevated track and carry four to six people. Pods are already running in London's Heathrow Airport and in Abu Dhabi. Sweden and South Korea also have plans to develop the pod cars.

Water Vehicles: BP Oil

Unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), or boats, have been tested since the Second World War, but have been largely overshadowed by their robot cousin: the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). The first AUV was developed in 1957. Oil industries, gas companies and oceanic researchers use AUVs to map the ocean floors. BP Oil uses AUVs to inspect its equipment and, more recently, monitor the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The robots are monitored by an offshore service vessel.

Story continues below advertisement

The Israeli navy uses USVs to patrol their coast. And most militaries uses UAVs to detect mines and submarines and monitor coastlines.

Technology and Industry: Corecon and "the mine of the future"

Corecon, based in Illinois, has one of the largest automated vehicle product lines on the market. Its vehicles are for factory use - vehicles that tow, load and cart. The company has been developing these systems for more than 20 years. Its driverless factory vehicles have been used in the aerospace industry, car assembly and to load heavy rolls of paper in newspaper printing rooms.

In late June, iron ore giant Rio Tinto unveiled its new, completely automated operating system in Perth, Australia. Nearly 500 technicians and operators control a cluster of rail systems, mines and port systems over 1,500 kilometres away. They have driverless trucks, remotely operated drills and blasting, automated train systems and remote loading. Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has said his company has created the "mine of the future."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter