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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San Francisco now has a taxi app for kids

"See you later, Mom - I'm off to get a ride from a complete stranger." Image: Shuddle.

While using taxis for the school run might sound a little extravagant, most parents would agree that, on occasion, it would be nice to palm a lift off to someone else - even if it means paying them. Last September, The New York Times reported that parents are increasingly shuttling their children around in Uber taxis. 

The problem is, parents of younger children may not feel comfortable sending them off in a car with a total stranger. Enter new app Shuddle (presumably a portmanteau of shuttle and cuddle? Or huddle? Muddle?), which is providing a specialised taxi service for children in San Francisco. The cars are driven by "childcare specialists" who must have experience in childcare, undergo background checks and receive additional training.

The service launched yesterday, and operates, like most new car-hire services, through an app. However, Shuddle doesn't come with quite the same benefits as other app-based services: you must book cars at least a day in advance, and users pay a monthly $9 fee on top of charges per ride.

Perhaps as a result of the childcare requirement, all 100 of the app's drivers are women. This is very uncommon for taxi services - in New York, 1 per cent of yellow taxi drivers are women, which led Stella Mateo to found SheRide, which provides female drivers to female passengers. 

The gender shift in new taxi services may also be a product of a trend towards personalisation. SheRide is for women who want women drivers; Shuddle is for parents who want drivers with childcare experience. At a recent keynote event for Hailo, the black cab taxi app, one speaker predicted that this trend may go even further, with in-app user profiles listing your preferences: 

As you step into the cab, they will have an idea of your likes, dislikes and interests. The in-cab media will be showing you a relevant TV channel. Or maybe you want to work, in which case you’ll be offered a quiet, undisturbed journey. Perhaps you are planning to catch-up your favourite team’s game on TV when you get home? The driver will know you don’t want to hear the score.

This might be going a little far. Call us old-fashioned, but cabbies wouldn't be cabbies if they weren't talking your ear off about their favourite topics, irrespective of your interest (or lack thereof). 

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