RAC Cars News


A Bump In The Road To Autonomous Driving

By raccars Published

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There's no avoiding the fact that driverless cars are coming to public roads, whether you like it or not. Major manufacturers all desperate to be the first to bring the technology to the masses are hurling themselves headlong into the future with their own autonomous driving systems, while internet giant, Google, has been beavering away on its own driverless car project for years now.

With the technical side of things proceeding apace, the main hurdle to commercial success for the system has been the lack of legislation, but these barriers have been falling away country by country and car makers have been avidly testing their projects on public roads. The British government recently announced that it too has caved to pressure and will be revising transport laws to allow the testing of driverless cars on UK roads.

So far, so good...

Unfortunately it seems that while manufacturers have been desperately trying to persuade us all about the level of sophistication their respective systems have achieved, apparently the weather is one major obstacle that has yet to be negotiated. A Google employee has admitted that the company's existing self-driving cars are unable to function in bad weather, such as rain and snow.

Google's autonomous driving vehicles have completed 700,000 miles on public roads in the US but the cars' sensors are unable to differentiate between obstacles on the road and rain drops or snow flakes. Similarly, while the cars' cameras can identify changing traffic lights, strong sunlight can confuse them.

Weather is apparently not the only problem. The cars' lack of human intuition is also proving problematic. The system recognises obstacles in a rather vague way, meaning it treats an empty plastic bag the same as a lump of rock, so has to drive around both rather than driving over the bag.

The vehicles achieve navigation using detailed maps but are unable to deviate from the pre-loaded data. For example, newly installed road works, which might involve temporary traffic lights and potholes, may not figure in the information provided. The sort of detail needed to allow the cars safe passage on public highways includes every driveway on a stretch of road, but so far, only a few thousand miles of road have been mapped in this sort of detail, meaning the Google driverless car can only be used in about 1% of the USA.

So the technology to run these vehicles may not be as imminent as it appears. Google, however, is undeterred and believes that these issues will be under control within five years.

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