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’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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