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 Quito this week, the world is meeting to discuss the future of its cities

The 'La Compania' church, in the historical centre of Quito, is illuminated during a light show held to open the UN's Habitat III Conference. Image: Getty.

As the global population grows from seven to nearly ten billion by 2050, we will need to build the equivalent of a city of 1m people every five days to house them.

The world already has ten cities with more than 20m inhabitants, including Tokyo (37m), Beijing (21m), Jakarta (30m) and New Delhi (25m). Out of the 7bn people in the world, 6.7bn live with pollution above WHO clean air standards.

And by 2050, around 12m people from 23 cities in East Asia alone will be at risk from coastal inundation. Planning for climate change will be critical to minimise risk to these areas.

These are just some of the stark facts about our global urban future.

With these issues in mind, up to 50,000 participants have gathered in Quito this week to discuss a New Urban Agenda at Habitat III – the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

The adoption of the agenda will set standards for sustainable development with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, cultural diversity, urban prosperity, urban governance, urban spatial development, and integrated urban planning including climate change.

From Paris to Quito

The Paris agreement on climate change will come into effect in November 2016. Cities will be at the heart of achieving its aim to limit global warming to less than 2°C. Planning for a low-carbon and resilient urban future is now our greatest global challenge. It is critical to achieving emission reduction targets and planning cities for climate change.

After all, cities produce 76 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions and account for 75 per cent of energy use worldwide.

The focus is now on implementing the Paris agreement; that is where the New Urban Agenda, proposed for agreement at UN Habitat III, comes into play. Key issues being discussed include affordable housing, urban transport, gender equity, empowerment of women and girls, poverty, and hunger in all its forms. Involving communities in the future and design of cities is essential. Better urban governance of our growing cities and urban regions is a core theme.

Observing the range of activities here at Habitat III, it is impressive to see the significant engagement of the private sector as well as governments and NGOs. This mix of partnerships is vital if we are to make positive change in the planning of our cities. Global companies are present as well as local consultancies. They can clearly see there is a market for them in more sustainable futures: that brings great hope for the future.

The scientists are less happy, and are seeking greater engagement in future discussions. The latest issue of Nature comments that “scientists must have a say in the future of cities”, and argues that they should have been more involved in the Habitat III processes. Clearly, better connecting scientists with planners with communities is important in finding sustainable solutions.

A key component in improving city planning is sharing knowledge and expertise. Cities are often connected through global urban networks such as C40, a network of megacities advocating for action on climate change, and the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.

Another important strategy being presented is improving the sharing of knowledge and expertise between “like climate regions”. It is equally important to improve communication of the major urban challenges with wider audiences. Researchers with the United Nations University have also developed an art strategy as part of the preparatory process for Habitat III, with the intention of stimulating thought and discussion on health and well-being in cities.

The overall message from UN Habitat III is that the sustainable planning and design of our cities and human settlements is fundamental to improving the health and well being of our urban communities and acting on climate change. Through that, we tackle the stark facts of urban pollution, our response to climate change, and the future liveability of our cities.

Our moment to act

We are living in a unique time for cities, with multiple UN agendas coming together at once: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate agreement, Sendai Framework for Risk Reduction and the Small Island Developing States Partnerships Framework.

National urban policies are seen as crucial to implementation of all these agreements. As the New Urban Agenda states:

the persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities, and environmental degradation remain among the major obstacles to sustainable development worldwide.

Through better urban governance, we can make significant inroads to address the ongoing barriers to achieving more sustainable cities. The proposed agenda particularly highlights transportation and mobility as a priority to support action.

Habitat III offers an opportunity to raise global understanding of the enormous challenges facing cities, and a platform for nations to collaborate in developing more sustainable urban futures. This will require considerable effort from everyone.The Conversation

Barbara Norman is chair of urban and regional planning at the University of CanberraJohn Colin Reid is a visual artist, attached to Australian National University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.