Professor reads newspaper in ton-up robocar on autostrada

September 24, 1999

Alberto Broggi, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Pavia, last week rode in a robot-driven car along 100 kilometres of motorway from Parma to Bologna. As the car cruised between 90 and 100 km/h and a car-load of journalists, filmed and photographed, Broggi sat in the driver's seat ostentatiously turning the pages of a newspaper. In June, he and two assistants travelled for 2,000 km in the car.

"Ninety-five per cent of the time it drove itself," he said. "We only took over manually on ramps and at toll booths. It drove itself perfectly even on twisting mountain motorways."

The project, "Argo", is backed by Pavia University and Parma University, where Broggi worked until recently. There are no private sponsors. The main components of the automatic pilot are a standard Pentium 200 PC in the boot and two video cameras mounted inside the two upper corners of the windscreen.

"The cameras read the white lines on the road and give instructions to servos that operate the controls," Broggi said. "We tried a number of operating systems and found Linux, in combination with software we developed ourselves, to be the most reliable. In fact, we've had zero faults."

The cameras act as a rangefinder to gauge distance. If any of the lines disappear, as when a car overtakes, the computer locks onto another line and "creates" the missing line on the basis of past readings. If the white lines disappear completely, a voice orders the passenger to take over.

"On the Parma Bologna run this happened once. Because of roadworks the white lines swung to the side towards the guard rail. The computer told us to take over in plenty of time." Broggi normally travels between 90 and 110 km/h.

"We've had it well over 120 on many occasions, but the car weaves slightly because the control algorithm is very simple and corrections are not smooth enough. We're working on that."

Surprisingly, Broggi and his team have avoided prosecution. "The car is a standard Lancia Thema and there is always somebody in the driver's seat. So technically we are within the law."

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