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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How ManSheffLeedsPool, Devo Met and a northern Oyster Card could empower UK cities

A detail from the commission's report.

This week, the City Growth Commission, launched in 2013 to figure out how we can “enable UK cities to thrive”, published its final recommendations. Over the past year, it's investigated ways to boost the infrastructure and economies of the UK's largest 15 cities outside London; to, in effect, fight back against the economic dominance of the capital. At the moment, this report makes clear, "our centralised economic policy is not fit for purpose". 

This final report  sets out a shopping list of changes that, according to the comission's estimates, could increase the economic output of the UK’s 15 largest cities by £79bn a year– the equivalent of 5 per cent of the UK’s current GDP.

Here’s a few of them.

Devo Met

As the report puts it, over the past year the “drumbeat of devolution has grown ever louder”. The issue of devolving greater powers to local and regional governments was dragged into the debate around Scottish independence as it became clear that other UK regions and cities didn’t feel adequately represented by central government either.

In fact, a recent study carried out by the Centre for Cities showed that satisfaction with Whitehall’s priorities gets drastically lower as you move north:

The commission is recommending that tax, planning powers and skills funding be devolved to a local level - though they advise proceeding with caution. As the commission’s chair, Jim O’Neill, puts it in the report’s introduction:

We should be clear that the process of devolution will require cities to have more robust governance, policy making and economic delivery functions in place. Even those who appear to be most in the vanguard will need to address these challenges to demonstrate that they are ready for substantial devolution.

The report continues that central government should be “open” to devolving powers in future, and that combined authorities (Sheffield, Liverpool, West Yorkshire, Manchester and the North East combined authority), with their more robust governing systems, will be best placed to take on new powers first.

A Tube (and Oyster) for the north

The centrepiece of the commission’s recommendations is outlined in July’s “Connected Cities” report: a “northern powerhouse”, in which the four largest northern cities would be connected by speedy new rail links and act, economically at least, like a second London.

Chair Jim O’Neill (who also, incidentally, coined the acronyms BRIC and MINT) has even given the powerhouse its own name: ManSheffLeedsPool. Mercifully, he's also commented that a “better acronym” is needed.

In the commission’s vision, residents could zip between these northern cities on a new HS3 rail line (a “tube for the north”) using a “Northern Oyster Card”; a standardised travel payment system which could be used across transport in all four cities.

Broadband

As we've noted before ("If you live in Sheffield you probably can't read this") broadband speeds are by no means excellent across the UK. We probably don't need to tell you that slow internet speeds aren't going to endear ManSheffLeedsPool (they really need a new acronym) to companies looking to expand. To help solve the problem, the commission's recommending a "comprehensive review" of broadband speeds, taking Singapore's government-led initiative to achieve 1GB/s speeds as an example. 

A second freshers' week; golden handcuffs

The commission also had a few ideas on how to keep graduates local, in order to boost the skilled workforce in UK cities. These included a Refreshers week ("a concentrated campaign to help focus graduates on extending their roots in their place of study in the key weeks and months before and after graduation") and "golden handcuff" schemes, where employers can reward employees who commit to working with them locally for a few years. Both sound a little creepy, but both could work - especially as the current price of living in London could make staying Birmingham or Cardiff even more attractive for graduates.

 

For the most part, the recommendations in the final report have been made before. The emphasis is on making sure the old ones actually happen, rather than coming up with more new ideas:  the report recommends a “tight timetable” for Devo Met, while Jim O’Neill summarises the report as a whole as a “nudge towards action”. 

The commission is advisory, rather than lawmaking, so it remains to be seen how the government will respond. Personally, we’re rooting for the northern Oyster card. 

 
 
 
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