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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In pictures: Jan Kaplický's futuristic designs were his escape from dreary 20th century London

All images: Kaplický Centre.

When Czech architect Jan Kaplický arrived in London in the late 60s, it was far from the shiny, Starbucks-filled metropolis it is today. As Richard Rogers describes in an introduction to a new book on Kaplický's work, it was "insular and parochial...grey and unsophisticated". The ravages of the war were still visible in blank lots on city streets, and, most importantly, you couldn't get a decent cup of coffee outside Soho.

It may have been precisely this grey and dismal atmosphere that drove Kaplický to create the dramatic, futuristic designs that would come to define his style. Jan Kaplický Drawings, a new collection of his sketches released by Circa Press this month, collects together drawings he created between the 1970s and 1990s. At the time he was working on real buildings in the UK, including Birmingham's futuristic Selfridges building, shown below. He died in 2009.

Image: Brian Norman at Wikimedia Commons.

The book contains many designs that never came to fruition: buildings that were too fantastical, or simply before their time. These designs in particular highlight Kaplický's skill not only as architect and artist, but as someone fascinated by the future of cities and their design.

Here are a few drawings from the book, which was published on 1 March. The designs are also on exhibition at the Architectural Association in London until 27 March.

Co-existence (1984)

This was a design for a high-rise community (on stilts, for some reason) which could contain cities' booming populations. 

House for Josef K (1997)

This space-age house design seems to have been drawn for his son, Josef. 

House for a helicopter pilot (1979)


Blob (1985)

In 2007, Kaplický won a competition to design the Czech national library with "The Blob", a similar design. However, the Czech government refused to fund the project, and as a result Kaplický lost the chance to design his first building in his native country .

Images courtesy of Circa Press.