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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At least four double decker buses have lost their roofs in crashes in London this year

Whoops: the remains of the bus following yesterday's accident. Image: Getty.

This is a bit of a worry. Yesterday afternoon, the roof of a tourist bus in the Bloomsbury district of central London was torn clean off when the front of the bus ran into an overhanging tree. No one was killed (phew); but four people were taken to hospitalised, and the fire brigade had to lift one passenger out of the upper deck.

All this sounded just a teensy bit familiar to us. After a quick search, we found this story from last February, when the roof of a number 91 was torn clean off by overhanging trees on Kingsway.

At the time, Gary Squires, from the London Fire Brigade, told the BBC that "it's not something we deal with very often". Which is funny, because in March a double decker carrying 76 kids from the Essex suburb on a day trip to Thorpe Park managed to crash into a railway bridge in Staines, ripping the roof clean off.

Then there was this occasion, two weeks ago, when a number 197 hit a railway bridge in Norwood, south London, and – yes – took its roof clean off.

We're not trying to say this is a common occurrence, exactly. The vast majority of double decker buses in London end every day with their roof pretty much exactly where it started it.

And maybe four times in six months is about what you'd expect. There are 8,000 buses in Transport for London's fleet, and that's wihout accounting for all the school buses, tourist buses, wedding specials and so on. Occasionally one of them is going to have a mishap, from the law of averages alone.

Nonetheless, four times in six months seems a little bit high for comfort, doesn't it?

The results of yesterday's incident. Image: Carl Court/Getty. 

The latter two of these cases seem to be the result of human error: the bus drivers got a bit lost, attempted to go under railway bridges that were lower than they thought they were, and hey presto, upgraded air conditioning on the upper deck.

And again. Image: Carl Court/Getty.

But the fact that the two central London incidents both involved over hanging trees is a bit of a worry. Moreover, both took place just down the road from each other. Many bus routes will pass both sites:

Why on earth this stretch of road should suddenly have become so dangerous to double deckers, we're not exactly clear: it does have a lot of big trees, but then so do many other major roads.

We've emailed the press office at the London Borough of Camden, responsible for the site of yesterday's incident, asking for comment – we'll update this story later if they respond.