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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Everyone hates Sydney’s new smart ticketing system – even though it’s quite good

Sydney's central train station. Image: Hpeterswald at Wikimedia Commons.

Paper tickets are an obsolete technology: just about every city in the world is abandoning them in favour of the transport smartcards pioneered in Hong Kong and London.

Sydney is coming late to this, which should allow it to opt for a better system than the early adopters. But some residents are unhappy that the technological and political compromises made by the early adopters aren’t being repeated there. This is true, despite the fact that – in some ways – Sydney’s system will actually be better.

To explain what Sydneysiders think they’re missing out on, you need to consider the systems introduced by the cities that came before it. Hong Kong wasn’t quite the first city to introduce transport smartcards (that honour goes to Seoul), but it was the first to adapt them to work across a truly complex modern transport network.

Hong Kong's Octopus card. Image: Alan Levine via Flickr. 

The Octopus card system, run by the territory’s Mass Transit Railway, first appeared in 1997. It takes the form of a stored-value, pay-as-you-go (PAYG) card which works across multiple public and private transport providers. Each provider sets their own fare, debited from the money stored on the card; the system allows no season ticket, no bulk discount, and no caps on fares when they reach a certain point.

So the system was, as these things go, relatively simple. Rather than being specific to transport, MTR had accidentally invented pre-paid contactless payment cards: indeed, Octopus is now commonly used in Hong Kong for all kinds of low-value retail transactions.

London was the second major city to move to contactless cards, but infighting and the desire to avoid foisting change on passengers led to a more complex system. Following a painful battle between different branches of government in the 1980s, London had been left with a much simplified ticketing system based on a series of concentric geographic zones: the more zones you travelled through, the higher the fare.

In theory, this standardisation should have made the Oyster programme easier. Unfortunately, by the time the system was signed off in 1998, rail privatisation meant that the city was now served by multiple privately owned train operating companies (TOCs). These had an agreement to accept Travelcards (city-wide tickets, allowing their holder to use any mode of transport) written into their contracts; otherwise, though, they charged whatever fare their pleased.

“The reaction reflects a broader Aussie suspicion that any change is for the worse

All this made a big bang Hong Kong-style launch impossible. The train operators had no interest in switching to Oyster for ticketing, and a PAYG-only system that excluded one of the major transport modes would have been confusing, to say the least. The requirement to accept Travelcards, however, was written into the TOCs’ contracts: that was true regardless of whether they were physically stored on a piece of paper or on an electronic smartcard.  

London thus ended up with a bizarre compromise in which you could use Oyster on any mode of transport, provided you had a Travelcard; if you wanted to use it for a pay-as-you-go fare, however, you could only use half the network.

As train operators’ franchises expired, and as Transport for London (TfL) gained more control over the city’s rail network, Oyster PAYG finally became usable on all National Rail services in 2010. But while newer smartcard systems often involve an automatic cap on total spending, so that passengers are not penalised for failing to decide their schedule in advance, Londoners must still decide whether to buy a Travelcard or not in advance. TfL’s ongoing shift to contactless bank cards might address this; then again, it might not.

Sydney’s first attempt at a smart ticketing system was the T-Card, which it planned in the wake of Octopus. But the city never carried out the steps that London had to standardise its ticketing system, and buses, trains and ferries continued to use a dizzying series of incompatible single, season and multiple tickets. T-Card’s promoters claimed they could include these fares on a card system without reform. They were wrong. The project was cancelled in 2008.

The replacement Opal Card, launched in late 2012, avoided the T-Card’s worst sin. It was preceded by a shake-up of fares equivalent to the one London saw in the 1980s, which brought state and private operators across all types of transport into the same system. This created a simpler base for Opal, for commuters and backroom computers alike.

Syndey's Opal card. Image: 

Missing out on London’s contractual nightmare also allowed Opal to avoid pre-loaded tickets from the start: instead, it has daily and weekly caps on total spending. These allow bulk discounts and promote off-peak transport use in a way Octopus can’t, reflecting the way backroom technology has improved since the launch of Hong Kong’s simpler system. Better technology has also made payment easier: online Opal top-ups are instant, whereas Oyster users must nominate a specific station to “collect” online purchases.

But some who’ve used systems elsewhere are dissatisfied with these changes. Elizabeth Farrelly is a centre-left writer, living in New South Wales, a state with a centre-right government. In early October, she wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I wanted a monthly pass, like my old Oyster… [but] there’s no option to buy bulk rides. This is ideological.

Others are unhappy that the Opal system doesn’t allow the non-transport purchases that Octopus enables in Hong Kong, despite the fact that banks’ contactless payment systems have made them obsolete.

More controversially still, Opal has skipped the expensive step of integrating with existing ticket sales systems: Opal cards and top-ups are sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, petrol stations and newsagents, but not ticket offices. The government hasn’t yet officially announced a ticket office closure program – but given the worldwide trend towards reducing fixed ticket offices and moving staff to visible support and safety positions, this seems all but inevitable.

For now, Sydney public opinion’s take on the system feels neutral at best, and negative at worst. This partly reflects some poor decisions taken by the government in parallel to roll-out. Not all buses have yet been fitted with Opal, and pensioner/student Opal cards are not yet available - yet various paper tickets that include discounted or bus-only travel have already been withdrawn.

But it also reflects a broader Aussie suspicion that any change is change for the worse, and that everything being done overseas is probably better than what we’re getting. Once the introduction is complete, it’ll be interesting to see whether the people of Sydney embrace their smartcards like Londoners or Hong Kongers – or whether they continue to lament the days of dog-eared paper strips.

 
 
 
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