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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The amateur map designer who remade London's tube map takes on the "night tube"

A detail from the redesigned version of London's night tube map. Image: SameBoat/Wikimedia Commons.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had “Deep Throat”. Here at CityMetric, we have “SameBoat” – the anonymous Wikipedia user whose redesign of London’s tube map was, we felt, so much better than the official version.

Deep Throat kept his identity secret for over 30 years, before finally coming clean as FBI agent Mark Felt in 2005. SameBoat, though, has come forward after barely more than a month. He's the Hong Kong-based graphic designer and sound engineer by the name of Thomas Lee, who designs metro maps in his spare time.

Obviously we're too modest to say that the whole affair shows we’re better reporters than Woodward and Bernstein. That's for you to decide.

Anyway – the reason we can bring you this exclusive information is that, this morning, SameBoat got in contact to let us know that he'd done a “night tube” version of his map, too.

Transport for London's own night tube map is a fairly significant redesign of its (increasingly, eye-gougingly awful) day tube map. SameBoat's isn't – it's a version of his day tube map, but with most of the lines faded out. The goal, he told us in an email, was to keep the sense of how the lines interrelated.

Here's the result:

Image: SameBoat/Wikimedia Commons.

And here, since you were wondering, is the official TfL version.

 

As to which of the two maps we prefer, we can't quite decide. TfL's night tube map is undeniably stylish. It shows the network with undeniable clarity, too. (Those are two qualities that have been singularly absent from the main tube map of late.) SameBoat's amateur version is less polished.


And yet – there probably is some benefit in showing the lines that aren't open at night. Regular traveller's eyes will be instantly drawn to the part of the map where they'd expect to see their station. Showing lines as faded may actually communicate the idea of "no service" more quickly than not showing them at all.

Here's what SameBoat (or "Lee", as we should probably call him now) says about his latest map:

There is an ongoing debate [about whether] TfL should redraw the Night Tube map from scratch instead of basing it on the daytime version with all the seemingly unnecessary kinks for ducking the non-existent daytime elements.

I think making the map from scratch is much easier for the cartographers because there are only five main lines. But that would increase the travellers's burden of knowledge about the newly twisted geography of the night time topological map.

I chose to preserve the daytime routes but make them much paler. [They] serve as geographic indicators without distracting readers from the night time routes.

Incidentally, Lee also noted that he was quite happy for us to describe him as an "amateur map designer":

Harry Beck wasn't a professional graphic designer to begin with, so I don't feel any shame at all.

Fair point.

Here's a clip of Sameboat's new tube map. You can see the full thing here.

Want more tube maps? Really? Are you sure? Oh well, if you insist.