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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“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.