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.