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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CityMetric Advent 22: A snapshot of social isolation in the suburbs

All alone. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Social isolation and loneliness are becoming common in our large cities. Our cities are sprawling, housing is becoming more unaffordable, people are travelling further and longer in their cars and household size is shrinking.

So what exactly is social isolation? It's a condition which affects people who don’t have strong social connections or interactions with other people. It places them at risk of low self-esteem; higher levels of coronary heart disease, depression, and anxiety; and below normal levels of happiness or subjective wellbeing.

A community snapshot of metropolitan Melbourne, "Melbourne Vital Signs 2014", reveals a number of factors likely to influence social isolation. It showed that one in five households spent more than 30 per cent of their household income on housing. It shows that incidences of family violence have increased by 16 per cent between 2012 and 2013. More than 13 per cent of youth aged 15-19 years are not engaged at all in work or study. Finally, more than 18,500 people are estimated to be homeless in metropolitan Melbourne. These are just a few of the factors related to where and how people live that contribute to social isolation in the suburbs.

Transport networks are another important influence of social isolation. They not only link people to work and study opportunities, but also allow them to socially connect with people, linking people to places where social interactions occur. Getting around is difficult for many people living beyond the transport rich areas of inner city; close to 25 per cent of Melburnians report inconvenience to their daily lives arising from transport, with the oldest and youngest having the most trouble getting around.

Life also becomes more car-dependent in the outer suburbs. A recent local government community survey found that 81 per cent of residents drive to work, leaving little time or energy to connect or volunteer with local community.

Limited transport affects people’s ability to access the employment and education opportunities associated with feelings of achievement and productivity and social interactions. More generally, it’s very hard to socialise, build relationships and new networks needed to get a job, when transport is limited or restricted to car ownership.

So what would the ideal neighbourhood look like if it promoted wellbeing and reduced social isolation?

It would be safe, attractive, socially cohesive, inclusive – and environmentally sustainable. It would include diverse and affordable housing. There would be convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure that was linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.

It would be a neighbourhood that provides for the needs of all people across the lifespan – children, youth, adults and older adults. It would embrace diversity and difference, and have active, informed and engaged residents.

Melbourne has been named the world’s most liveable city for the last 4 years. There remain, however, many challenges we need to work at to reduce social isolation in this city and many others across the country.

People need to access services they need within close distance, a “20 minute city” where neighbourhoods have key services available within a 20 minute distance. The ideal would have higher densities that provide more local employment opportunities and greater services, reducing sprawl and helping to connect people to places, and most importantly, more easily to each other.

Social isolation is not an issue specific to the festive season – but it can be harder for those people who have few people to connect with. So over the coming weeks, as life becomes busier in the lead up to Christmas and the end of the year, it might also be a good time to reflect on our own lives and think about how we can create more connected and inclusive communities.

It might be as simple as saying “hello” to someone on the train, talking to a neighbour or smiling at someone when you’re shopping or walking in your local area. Think about donating a gift or toy for someone who needs it more than you, or inviting someone without family or friends to join your Christmas meal. These might sound like very simple activities – but if everyone put their phone down for a little while maybe we could just bring a little more human kindness to the world and improve social isolation in the suburbs.

Melanie Davern is a research fellow, and Lucy Gunn a post-doctoral student, at the University of Melbourne.The Conversation

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