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Rain or snow? Rock or plastic bag? Google driverless car can't tell

2 September 2014, 9:45 am EDT By Aaron Mamiit Tech Times
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Google's self-driving cars still have some major limitations and are not yet ready for use by general public, as said by the Google Car Project director Chris Urmson.

Google's self-driving cars have driven over 700,000 miles safely. This progress has made the public think that all of the issues regarding the self-driving car technology has been solved, said University of California, Berkeley Institute of Transporation Studies researcher Steven Shladover.

"But that is simply not the case," Shladover said.

Urmson known the limitations of the self-driving car better than anyone, but retains his optimism that the issues that the Google Car Project team need to work on will be solved faster than most people expect.

Google's documentations about their self-driving cars leaves the impression on the public that the car can drive by itself anywhere that a car can normally drive to. However, the feat is only true after extensive preparations, including very detailed mapping of the car's exact route. A special sensor car needs to make multiple passes to collect data on the route, with the the data then to be later processed by humans and computers.

Google's self-driving cars are better requipped to sudden changes in the mapping details than other prototypes though. If a traffic light is suddently erected on an intersection overnight, the car wouldn't follow it. However, if all the other cars are stopping on the intersection, the car will slow down or stop as instructed by its on-board sensors.

Universita di Parma professor Alberto Broggi expressed his concern about the ability of Google's self-driving cars to adapt with its map-dependent system if there are changes in the car's route. 

Carnegie Mello robotics researcher Michael Wagner said that Google should be revealing what its self-driving cars are and are not capable of.

"This is a very early-stage technology, which makes asking these kinds of questions all the more justified," said Wagner.

Google has prepared maps for self-driving cars to use for only a few thousands miles of roads. In addition, the car has yet to be tested for driving in snow and during heavy rains, along with traversing wide parking lots and multi-floor garages. 

The self-driving car sees people as moving pixels, which means that it will not recognize a police officer waving frantically for all cars to stop. The sensors of the car will also not be able to tell if an object on the road is a rock or a plastic bag, so it will be driving around both of them. The car will also not be able to detect potholes or uncovered manholes.

Despite all these questions, Urmson is looking to have the cars ready in five years, when his 11-year-old son reaches the legal driving age of 16 in California.

"It's my personal deadline," Urmson said.

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