Google’s driverless cars can’t spot potholes or drive in heavy rain

Guess we’re not going anywhere today, then. Image: public domain.

And it seemed like everything was going so well for Google’s amazing new driverless cars. The first set of prototypes has been tested; they’ve driven over 700,000 miles of US roads; they’ve even created a second generation two-seater car with what looks like a friendly face on the front:

Aww, look at its smiley face.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that Google were on the home straight, and we’d all be chauffeured around in autonomous vehicles before the year was out.

But, it turns out, not so much. The most recent issue of MIT Technology Review has revealed a list of the things the cars can’t yet do, as confirmed by Chris Urmson, director of the Google car team. These range from the mildly problematic  - for example, the cars can’t detect the nature of an obstacle, so would swerve around balls of paper as though they were rocks... the downright concerning. Such as not having been tested in adverse weather conditions such as snow or rain. Or being able to detect open manhole covers or potholes.

Perhaps the most worrying issue, however, is the fact that they still can’t operate on most roads. The cars rely on painstakingly detailed 3D maps, which require multiple visits to streets and analysis by both humans and computers: simply downloading Google Maps won’t cut it. And, since the cars can’t respond to unexpected visual signals, like temporary route changes or new sets of traffic lights, these maps must also be updated constantly. That’s a lot of effort, and so comes at a cost.

Urmson assured the publication, however, that engineers are hard at work on all these issues, and he still hopes the cars will be on roads within the next five years, by the time his 11-year-old son turns 16: “It’s my personal deadline.”

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Glowing roads, Halloween pop-ups and London's national park

The business of Halloween. Image: Turnkey Events.

Some of the city stories we enjoyed elsewhere this week.

  • Designer Dan Roosegaarde, of glowing tree streetlights fame, has used glow-in-the-dark paint on a stretch of highway in the Netherlands to create road markings. Unlike cats' eyes, the markings don't rely on reflecting light, making them safer for cyclists and easier to follow for cars. Once the markings have been tested in the Netherlands, they may be rolled out in other countries, including the UK. 

This video shows them in action:

  • This piece at How We Get To Next, the site accompanying the science and futurism TV series of the same name, follows the attempt of one Londoner to turn the city into a National Park. This may sound bonkers, but Daniel Raven-Ellison argues that London is actually one of the greenest urban areas in the world, and should be recognised as such. Here's one of his promotional graphics, which shows London's land categorised by use:

Raven-Ellison told the site: 

There’s a sense that somehow the wild has to be pristine to be valued. But if you’re an individual flower, or pigeon or fox, you’re no less wild. There are just fewer of you, and you’ve learned to be in a city better than maybe other things. But that doesn’t make you any less valuable.

  • CityLab has taken an unusually economics-based approach to their Halloween coverage in the form of this piece on Halloween pop-up stores. The stores, which appear one day in August stuffed with masks and capes, then disappear just as suddenly on 1 November, have suffered as the economy's improved and as rents have inched upwards. To save on overheads, some now operate from giant tents in shopping centre car parks:

That Halloween pumpkin tent might look silly. (I would say "delightful.") But more of them could be a telltale heart—no, sign—of a slow but steady economic rebound. And what could be less scary than a robust national retail sector?

  • And finally, forget skeletons and pumpkins - it's  UN World Cities Day. The Guardian is marking the major international holiday by hosting 12 minute pitches of city ideas from all over the world. Meanwhile, we're mostly unwrapping gritty urban gifts and cracking open the port. 
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