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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The Knowledge, enviable cycle routes and small town disintegration

This man has the knowledge. Do you? Image: Getty.

Here's a few stories we enjoyed elsewhere this week. 

  • This long piece from the New Inquiry tracks the disintegration of a Californian town called Needles; in doing so, it exposes economic trends in the US which have made it hard for some small towns to survive.

In Needles, local hardware stops and restaurants closed after the 2008 crash. Now, a monthly farmers' market is the only significant meeting place for locals. As the author says:

No amount of farmers markets can change the fact that Needles has been permanently diminished. And no matter how alienating life in small-town America can be, it is one of the wonders of capitalism that it can always make it worse.

Cheerful, eh?

  • Look away now, Londoners: turns out Copenhagen has not one, not two, but 28 completed, funded or planned commuter cycle routes into the city's centre. This map shows the planned network in all its glory:

This piece at Citiscope tracks the project's development: "a remarkable story of regional cooperation, forged by one big city and 21 of its smaller suburban neighbors, who came together around a common vision for moving commuters from using their cars to riding their bicycles." Hear that, Boris?

  • Over at the New York Times, they've devoted a decent chunk of reporting to The Knowledge, the geographical test London cabbies must pass before they're let loose on the capital's streets. The piece calls it "probably the most difficult test in the world", but as the author explains, its relevance is under threat in an age of GPS maps:

...given the pace of technological refinement, how long will it be before the development of a Sat-Nav algorithm that works better than the most ingenious cabby, before a voice-activated GPS, or a driverless car, can zip a passenger from Piccadilly to Putney more efficiently than any Knowledge graduate?

Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may not be practical-economic (the Knowledge works better than Sat-Nav), or moral-political (the little man must be protected against rapacious global capitalism), but philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. 

  • And finally, if city history is your thing, check out this map of Amsterdam created by Bert Spaan, which colour-codes every building by how old it is:

As you'd expect, the city's packed, canal-laced centre was largely built before 1800, with the newest developments springing up around the city's edges and on KNSM island (a hundred-year-old manmade peninsula just below the key in the map above). 

View a full interactive version covering the whole of the Netherlands here.

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