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...

...to 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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“What works for men doesn’t work for everyone”: why cities need to start planning with women in mind

Mannequins erected in London's Marble Arch to promote Safer Cities for Women Day. Image: Action Aid.

Last year, councillors for the city of London, in Ontario, Canada, spent 90 minutes discussing a 12 word addition to a document. The contentious sentence read, “Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies”.

Harmless sounding, perhaps, but some of the male politicians felt the line impugned their honour. Bill Armstrong, representative of Ward 2 since the 90s, accused Maureen Cassidy, the councillor who introduced the offending line, of “questioning the integrity of our administration and suggesting they were doing practices that would be discriminatory”.

That, he said, was simply not the case, and “I’ve been there long enough to know” – a reference perhaps to his opponent’s more recent assumption of office. “Plain and simple,” he concluded, “all people are treated equally, so it doesn’t have to be said.” 

The thing is, while Armstrong’s sentiment may be admirable, treating people equally has a long rap-sheet when it comes to achieving equal outcomes. That is to say, treating people equally often translates as treating people like men.

And not all people are men. Some of them (quite a lot actually) are women. Some of them are also girls – and boys. Sometimes people are men, but they aren’t the white, middle-aged, able-bodied men that are imagined when city halls are drawing up plans to treat people equally. 

What all this means is that what works for men, as imagined by city hall, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else. By treating us in a way that suits this male ideal, the rest of us are disadvantaged – often in surprising ways.

For example, I bet you’ve never thought about snow clearing as a gendered issue. Neither had city officials in Karlskoga, in Sweden. “The community development staff made jokes about how at least snow is something the gender people won’t get involved in,” explained Bruno Rudström, one of the city’s gender equality strategists.

But on reflection, they realised that even something as seemingly neutral as snow-clearing, actually could have a markedly different impact on men and women, due to the gender split in travel style. Women are more likely than men to walk, bike, and use public transport, whereas men are more likely to drive. By prioritising clearing the roads, the city was prioritising the way men choose to travel, despite the fact that walking or pushing a stroller though 10cm of snow is much harder than driving a car through it.

So the city changed the order of snow-clearing to focus on the pavements and cycle paths first, particularly around schools. As an unexpected by-product, it found a marked decrease in injuries: pedestrians are three times as likely as motorists to be injured in accidents due to slippery conditions. 

Parks are another area you might not immediately think of as gendered spaces – but a study in Vienna found that, after the age of nine, there was a dramatic decline in the number of girls using them. The reason behind this decline was not that girls stopped liking the parks: rather, if they had to compete with boys for space, they tended to lose, because they were less assertive.

If she was older she probably wouldn't be here. Image: Getty.

In response, the city redesigned the parks to include a variety of courts to encourage different activities. It also divided large open areas into smaller semi-enclosed spaces. The effect was dramatic, and almost immediate: now that they didn’t have to share the same space as the boys, the girls returned. A small change, but an effective one.

There are a number of other hidden ways in which cities can exclude women – for example, the traditional “human scale” for buildings as advocated by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, where human meant a 6 foot male. But the number one way in which women are let down in city planning is through a lack of safety, which in turn can impede women’s access to work, a social life, housing and transportation.


Last Friday, ActionAid held a demonstration in Marble Arch, for Safer Cities for Women Day: 30 mannequins, a third marked in red, to symbolise the one in three women who will experience male violence in her lifetime. Each mannequin carried a quote from a woman. “The police told me not to tell anyone,” read one. “This is my city,” read another.

It may be her city in theory, but in practice, things are a little different. Poor lighting, dangerous public transport, even inadequate public toilet provision can all lead to cities being inhospitable places for women: in a typical Mumbai slum, there are around six toilets per 8,000 women, many of them infested with rats or without water. Women are often raped or assaulted as they search for a toilet.

Inevitably, it is Sweden that is leading the way in tackling these issues. After research finding that women were reluctant to use municipal car parks – due to traditionally poor lighting, windowless concrete walls, and lifts and stairwells tucked out of sight with few people around and no easy means of escape – officials in Gothenburg decided to do something about it.

Concrete was substituted for glass, and better lighting was installed, as well as an increased security presence. “A car-park company cannot solve the underlying problem, which is men’s violence against women,” said Jonas Nilsson, the company’s head of car park security, “but we can take many measures to reduce people’s insecurity.” And making cities more woman-friendly doesn’t have to be a purely selfless act: since the changes, more women have started using the car-park, and so the company made more money. Everyone wins.

Commuters board a tram in Gothenburg in 2004. Image: Getty.

To the east of the country, in the city of Kalmar, research found that women were avoiding taking the bus at night because of safety concerns. So, in order to achieve the city’s goal of increasing public transport use, officials introduced “night stops”. Passengers travelling alone could ask the bus driver to stop between two regular bus stops — somewhere closer to home, or somewhere that simply felt safer. The bus driver would open only the front doors, and only allow the single passenger out, reducing concerns of being followed. The number of people using the night bus increased significantly following the introduction of these measures.

But we all know Sweden is insufferably progressive on gender issues – what about less enlightened countries? Like the UK, for example?

Well, since 2007, public authorities have technically been required to consider all planning decisions in the context of the Public Sector Equality Duty. This duty requires all public bodies to explicitly consider whether their decision will “promote equality of opportunity”.

And there have been some examples of good practice – for example, the London Borough of Lewisham “shifted its policy on employment site provision, to provide more local jobs to benefit women and reduce long-distance commuting”. (Women tend to make “more complex journeys than men” as a result of their shouldering the majority of the childcare and household burden.)


But there is still a long way to go. Last year reporting of sexual offences on trains and at stations reached “record levels”. In part this was because of increased reporting, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is still happening on a significant scale. Meanwhile, councils continue to switch off street lighting to cut costs. It is debatable whether or not this actually leads to an increase in crime, but it certainly will not make women feel more safe.

Such considerations are perhaps likely to continue being overlooked, while female representation in local government remains so low: 32 per cent, 28 per cent and 24 per cent in England, Wales and Scotland, respectively. The issue is particularly acute in planning and construction, which Kate Henderson, chief of the Town and Country Planning Association describes as “very, very male-dominated”.

The evidence from cities around the world is clear: women and men use and experience cities differently, and if we want to ensure equal access for everyone, we have to take these differences into account. To return to where we began, London – this time the one in England – we have a new mayor in Sadiq Khan.

And here there is reason to be hopeful: Khan’s new team has not been fully appointed (a deputy mayor for planning has yet to be named), but the signs so far look good, with a diverse team in stark contrast to our usual pale and male diet when it comes to city officials. With a range of perspectives on offer, perhaps London can start to move away from treating people equally and start instead to treat them equitably.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.