Self-driving cars struggle to cope with bad U.S. roads

Self-driving cars struggle to cope with bad U.S. roads: report
By Ethan Baron March 31, 2016 at 10:32 AM

Welcome to our world, robots – we have trouble driving on crappy roads, too.

Sadly, we humans cannot give ourselves a handful of souped-up extra eyeballs and a few additional ears so we can better deal with badly maintained roadway infrastructure that makes driving harder and more dangerous. Fortunately, the self-driving cars that will eventually be carrying all of us around can have their sensory powers boosted with the robot equivalents of more and better eyes and ears.

And it’s a good thing, too: America’s roads and roadway signage are in such terrible shape that even the makers of automated cars are complaining that their vehicles with standard sensor set-ups can’t navigate properly, and in at least one case, would refuse to drive.

“It can’t find the lane markings!” Lex Kerssemakers, the Dutch CEO of Volvo North America, said while in a balky Volvo semi-autonomous car at the Los Angeles Auto Show, according to Reuters. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!”

Here in the Bay Area, drivers feel Kerssemakers’ pain. A 2011 report on the region’s roads by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave them a D+, and anyone who hits the road with regularity here knows that not much has changed in the past five years, other than an increase in traffic.

Self-driving cars use cameras, radar and lasers — collectively known as sensors — as their eyes and ears, with the surroundings data processed via artificial intelligence software. Industry executives told Reuters that hard-to-see road markings and uneven signage on U.S. roads were forcing their companies to add more sophisticated sensors to their autonomous vehicles. “If the lane fades, all hell breaks loose,” Carnegie Mellon University research scientist Christoph Mertz told Reuters. “But cars have to handle these weird circumstances and have three different ways of doing things in case one fails.”

The U.S. Transportation Department estimated last year that 65 percent of U.S. roads, and 68 percent of California roads, were in “poor” or “mediocre” condition. To handle those many weird circumstances that come up on deficient roadways, makers of self-driving cars “are incorporating multiple sensors, maps and data into their cars, all of which adds cost,” the Reuters article said.

Boston Consulting Group has estimated that robot-car manufacturers will have to spend more than $1 billion over the next decade in research investment for even more sophisticated autonomous features, according to Reuters.


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