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Would You Trust A Self-Driving Car In A Snowstorm?

By 2nd October 2017No Comments
Think about the above question this weekend, whether you’re inching your way through snow-packed traffic or are merely watching the big blizzard unfold via television news reports while sitting toasty and warm at home.
How will self-driving cars fare in a blizzard? If they’re smart they’ll just stay in the garage and wait for the plows to come.
The first wave of self-driving cars will essentially employ an array of cameras and sensors as electronic eyes in what’s expected to be an advanced cruise control system for primarily highway driving to keep a car centered within lane markers, maintain a set speed and distance from traffic ahead, anticipate and slow the car down for curves in the road, and so forth. Eventually, autos should be able to operate as if they had invisible chauffeurs behind the wheel, picking us up at the front door, dropping us off at work, and then parking itself, perhaps at a remote off-site parking lot to save a few bucks.
But what happens if snow accumulates over a camera lens or otherwise blocks a sensor? What if the cameras can’t “see” highway lane markers and/or if visibility and traction otherwise become compromised during a storm? Earlier reports suggest Google GOOGL +1.10%’s test fleet of self-driving cars is unable to operate in heavy rain or snow because of these issues.
The Society of Automotive Engineers predicts fully autonomous vehicles will be reaching showrooms by 2025, but already some carmakers – including Tesla, Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz – are gradually taking control away from the driver under certain circumstances. Unfortunately not all is going smoothly. Originally planned for a fall 2016 launch, General Motors GM +1.98% recently announced it would postpone introduction of its heralded “Super Cruise” system for the new Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan until sometime in 2017. Automotive News attributes the delay to “the need to get the system right and keep owners safe.”
One of the major arguments yet to be resolved in the development of self-driving cars is whether the coming generation or fully automated autos should come with a steering wheel and accelerator/brake pedals at all. For its part, the California Department of Motor Vehicles just issued regulations that mandate all self-driving cars come with a steering wheel and pedals and allow the driver to intervene whenever necessary. Quoting the actual rule, “The autonomous vehicle driver is either in immediate physical control of the vehicle or is actively monitoring the vehicle’s operations and capable of taking over immediate physical control.”
Earlier this week Google revealed its fleet of prototype autonomous cars had detected failures with self-driving technology 272 times between September 2014 and November 2015 that required drivers to take immediate control of the vehicles. Another 69 reported incidents weren’t perhaps as perilous, but still caused test-drivers to take the wheel. And Google isn’t alone in facing this problem. Mercedes-Benz reported 1,051 disengagements among its two self-driving test models, the most of any of the seven automakers licensed to test robocars in California; .
“How can Google propose a car with no steering wheel, brakes or driver when its own tests show that over 15 months the robot technology and handed control to the driver 272 times and a test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times,” says John Simpson, privacy director with the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.”

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Tim Kelly

Tim is a highly qualified Independent Engineer with over 20 years experience as an Engineering Assessor of damaged vehicles.

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