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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Microsoft's Bing Maps now shows you real-time stills from traffic cameras

The traffic at Blackfriars Road. Image: Bing.

Given the prevalence and popularity of Google's Android and Apple's iOS systems, it's now second nature for users to default to the mapping solutions baked into the phones we buy.

But let's not forget Microsoft and the mapping services it offers, because a new update to the web version of Bing Maps lets users view real-time traffic cameras. By clicking on the "traffic" tab, you can see where traffic cameras are, then click on them to view a recent image of the road in question.

The update allows users to view live feeds in 11 different countries, from a database of 35,000 traffic cameras. Want to know what a certain lane closure near Blackfriars in London looks like? Choosing between a cab and the subway in New York City? Need to make sure there's no bull-fighting taking place on the streets of Madrid? No problem! Just fire up your laptop and take a peek before heading out. The small print on the new feature cautions drivers not to view the maps while actually driving - it'd be a shame if the new feature made roads less safe, not more. 

Live traffic information isn't a new feature in online mapping services, with apps like Waze crowdsourcing updates about road incidents from their users for years. But this update beats any graphic of squiggly lines and arrows, as you're able to see actual roads and what the current conditions are like.

The camera feeds are updated frequently, with images from London's cameras updated every five minutes. Perfect for stalking your loved ones minding their own business (and not you) on a Saturday morning.

We recently shared the news of Google Maps launching a new offline functionality. All of these updates continue to show just how important location data is to tech companies, and it's a sign that Google's offering isn't always the best show in town.