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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Shenzhen could build a complex of giant, connected skyscrapers shaped like a cloud

Nice to see they’re feeling optimistic about the weather of the future. Images: Urban Future and CR-design.

Of late there’s been a bit of a trend towards skyscrapers you'd barely need to leave. So, here’s another.

The “Cloud Citizens” scheme proposes covering the 1.6m square metre chunk of Shenzhen with a network of towers with mid-air connections. The three central towers, each standing at 680m, would rank as the second, third and fourth highest skyscrapers in the world, behind only Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

The structure would be able to harvest rainwater, produce solar and wind energy, and filter the air. Inside, there’d be living space, offices, and recreational facilities.

This week the project won the international “Shenzhen Bay Super City Competition” to find the most exciting way of developing a huge swathe of the southern Chinese city’s waterfront. It’s the brainchild of the Urban Future Organisation, working with CR-design and a group of academics.

Alas, however, it seems pretty unlikely that the final skyscraper will look anything much like these designs. The Shenzhen Design Center, which ran the competition, announced the winner with the expectation-setting caveat: “The above design works are the winning schemes of this international competition rather than the final schemes for execution.” The final project will be based on these ideas, but no one’s promised anything more.

While the final design might not quite match the giddy heights that these artists’ impressions promise, Shenzhen does have form for large-scale construction projects. It's one of China's biggest and fastest growing cities, with a population of 15 million and (so far) two of the world's 25 tallest skyscrapers.

Recent projects haven't been controversy-free, however. In 2013, construction on a skyscraper was paused after allegations that contractors used "cheap sand" in the concrete; such sand contains high levels of sea salt and chlorides which can erode metal and cause buildings to, er, collapse.

And, earlier this month, protesters laid flowers in a park where there are plans to build a shopping mall. Who knows how they’d respond to nearly 2 square kilometres’ worth of skyscraper.

 
 
 
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