How did driverless cars cope in last week’s London’s snow?

The pod, in better weather. Image: GATEway Project.

There’s one London driver that didn’t react badly to last week’s snow: Greenwich’s driverless pod.

The GATEway project runs a pod – the same vehicle used at Heathrow to ferry drivers from the parking lot to the terminals – around a 3.4km route on the Greenwich peninsula. The aim isn’t currently to test the automated technology, but to understand public perception to driverless vehicles.

Still, when you have a chance to test driverless tech in snow, you take it, says Jim Hutchinson, CEO at Fusion Technology, the company behind the automated pod tech. “We want it to go beyond what a human driver could reasonably cope with,” he explains. “That is our aim, but right now, for this trial it’s not a requirement that it can do that. It was more an opportunistic thing really: there was snow on the ground, so let’s take it out and see if it’s as good as it should be.”

And it worked better than expected – though there were differences in the automated pods’ winter driving, compared to the usual weather. Hutchinson said he noticed that it drove a slightly different line than usual, off by “centimetres rather than metres”.

“There were some positioning inaccuracies – they weren’t terrible, but the precision was reduced,” he says. “The degradation wasn’t that appreciable, so that was very good from our point of view.”

That’s down to the car “seeing” less well in the snow. “When you coat everything in white, you no longer have the same definition,” he notes. 

This driverless system doesn’t rely on a single type of computer vision. Driving would be more difficult in snowy conditions if it only used LIDAR – “Light Detection and Ranging”, which pings light at surfaces and measures how long it takes to come back.

But the GATEway technology also uses radar and cameras to see. “Because our system uses a broad range of sensors, we’re perhaps a little bit more robust than some systems that are solely reliant on LIDAR, which can be susceptible to more adverse conditions,” Hutchinson says. “By using radar and to some extent cameras as well we can get around some of those problems better than if you rely on a single sensor type.”

The GATEway pods have fewer challenges than full-blown driverless cars that will take to the roads, however. The pods follow a set route on a pathway, so they needn’t worry about missing a snow-covered stop sign.


Driverless cars that do take to roads will need more robust systems for getting around when snow has obliterated road markings and wiped out signage. In response, Ford is testing detailed 3D maps, while Finnish researchers in December sent their driverless car hurtling down a snow-covered motorway at 25mph using radar, cameras, and GPS – but the road was also kitted out with sensors to help with positioning. 

Seeing in a blizzard is only part of the problem of winter driving, of course, and radar isn’t much help if you’re spinning your wheels or sliding off the road. The GATEway pods don’t have traction control featured in most regular modern cars, but sensors help them understand when there’s a mismatch between what the wheels are doing and how fast the vehicle is actually moving. (This is a feat not managed by my neighbour, who spun his tires for ten minutes before trying de-icing spray on the road.)

Faced with slippery pathways, the Greenwich pod did what a “responsible driver” would do, Hutchinson said. It simply slowed down.

GATEway safety stewards (that is, people) were riding in the driverless cars in the snow – Hutchinson admitted they were initially nervous, but eventually relaxed – but no other passengers faced the Beast from the East from inside an autonomous pod. Was he worried about safety? “My biggest concern would have been that the ground was quite slippery – so just people getting in and out of it would have been my biggest concern, rather than people being in it,” he says.

Of course, those left to walk home on the slippery pavements rather than catch a ride in a covered pod may disagree. Indeed, offering rides in inclement weather is the aim. “It’s really going to help in those sorts of conditions, that’s when you want them…  When it’s really unpleasant, it can make a big difference to your day if you have a comfortable means to get to your destination.”

That’s a lesson learned by Hutchinson last week, after his journey home via stalled trains took 26 hours. But unless you live along the pods’ limited route in Greenwich, the rest of us have many more winters ahead of trudging through the snow on foot before this tech is ready to widespread enough to carry us home.

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It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.