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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Here's proof that London has Britain's best public transport system

These are the lucky ones. Image: Tal Cohen/Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Which British city has the best public transport system?

Okay, we're probably over-reaching by pretending that there's even any debate about this. London has the tube, and two light railways, and a fledgling S-Bahn network, and buses and trains covering pretty much anywhere else. Not to mention boats and a cable car that nobody asked for.

According to the Institute of Public Policy Research, the British state spends £2,500 on transport infrastructure for every Londoner. In the north east of England, it's just £5 per head. Of course London has the best public transport system in Britain. Of course it does.

Nonetheless, it's always good to put some numbers on these things, so let's fire up the ol’ data-matic.

This graph plots the size of British cities against the share of their commuters who take public transport to work. (The data is from 2011; the chart isn't interactive, but don't despair, the full data is available below.)

Click to expand.

There's quite variation in how many commuters use public transport. In some cities – Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow – it's well over 20 per cent.  At the bottom end, in Telford, it's barely 5 per cent.

Perhaps surprisingly, there's no clear correlation between city size and public transport use. Relatively big Birmingham and Manchester are in the middle of the range, while relatively small Brighton is near the top. Perhaps this is a reflection of decades of underinvestment in urban transport: most continental cities the size of Birmingham have an extensive tram or metro network.

Anyway. We've cheated a bit on that graph: we excluded London from the data. That's because, when you add it back in, it totally wrecks the scale of the thing.

Click to expand.

Partly, of course, this is because London is nearly four times bigger than any other city in Britain. But its presence warps the graph in another way, too. In Edinburgh, its nearest rival in this particular category, 27.6 per cent of residents take public transport to work. In London, it's 44.6 per cent.

Your taxes in action, one presumes.

While we’re crunching the numbers, here's the top 10:

That looks to us like a three way split. Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle all have reasonably developed rail networks (albeit not on anything like the scale of London's). Edinburgh and Brighton both have extensive bus networks.

Brighton also falls into the third category – London commuters towns where a large chunk of the workforce gets on a train to London every day, bumping up the figures.

For completism's sake, here's the other end of the table...

...about which, if we're honest, we have less to say.

Last but not least, here's an interactive map. Hover over a dot and it'll give you the data.