While I am enthusiastic about self-driving cars and its promise of increasing the mobility of those unable to drive as well as the possibility that such cars may be better drivers than humans, via Machines Like Us I came across this article by Lee Gomes says that we should not overestimate what they can currently do, because the road tests that they have done so far that produced 700,000 miles of accident-free driving have been under very limited conditions. There is still a long way to go and some major technological hurdles to overcome.
He says that the cars cannot be driven on 99% of the current roadways, cannot park themselves, cannot be used in heavy rain or snow, and cannot detect potholes. So Cleveland is definitely out for the near future.
Many of the remaining problems are because of the map=based technology these cars use.
Google often leaves the impression that, as a Google executive once wrote, the cars can “drive anywhere a car can legally drive.” However, that’s true only if intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. It’s vastly more effort than what’s needed for Google Maps.
Google’s cars are better at handling some mapping omissions than others. If a new stop light appeared overnight, for example, the car wouldn’t know to obey it. However the car would slow down or stop if its on-board sensors detected any traffic or obstacles in its path.
Maps have so far been prepared for only a few thousand miles of roadway, but achieving Google’s vision will require maintaining a constantly updating map of the nation’s millions of miles of roads and driveways.
Among other unsolved problems, Google has yet to drive in snow, and [director of the Google car team Chris] Urmson says safety concerns preclude testing during heavy rains. Nor has it tackled big, open parking lots or multilevel garages.
Pedestrians are detected simply as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels—meaning, Urmson agrees, that the car wouldn’t be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop.
The car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either. Urmson also says the car can’t detect potholes or spot an uncovered manhole if it isn’t coned off.
Sigh. It looks like I may not be able to get a self-driving car by the time I am incapable of driving a car myself.