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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Google Maps has let Pac-Man loose on real city streets for April Fools' Day

Pac-Man in Paris. Image: Google.

We love maps. We write about them all the time. But we sometimes have difficulty convincing the general public that they're quite as cool and fun as we think they are. 

This week, though, Google is giving us a helping hand by turning its entire maps database into a giant game of Pac-Man. The game appears to be an April Fool's gimmick, though it's not clear whether it'll will disappear once the big day is over.

From anywhere in the world, and on any part of Google Maps that features enough roads, you can click the Pac-Man button on the bottom left of your screen and you can play the classic arcade game to your heart's content. 

You can play Pac-Man around Trafalgar square:

You dodge ghosts by the Pyramids of Giza:

Sadly, you don't seem to be able to play in Pyongyang, North Korea:

You can't take Pac-Man on a road trip, unfortunately: take him beyond the edge of the screen you're looking at, and he'll simply reappear at another edge of the map. 

And a word of warning: the street layout in your chosen town or city makes a big difference to how difficult the game is. Dodging ghosts in Europe's densely packed, randomly angled streets requires faster reaction times than in a US city grid system. Good luck out there.