January 31, 2016

The Limits of Self-Driving Cars

The Limits of Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars have been a focal point for the automotive industry over recent years. And while a number of studies seem to suggest that these vehicles can offer some important safety benefits (not available with standard passenger vehicles), self-driving cars do still have some significant limitations – especially when it comes to adapting to changing weather conditions.

Brief Background on How Self-Driving Cars Work

Autonomous cars can assume the task of driving as a result of complex algorithms that reportedly can help these vehicles detect and respond to changing driving conditions.  For instance, while these algorithms allow self-driving vehicles to perceive changing traffic signals and fluctuations in surrounding vehicles’ speeds, they also can detect pedestrians (or other non-vehicles) sharing the road with these vehicles.

While self-driving vehicles being tested on public roads by Google have reportedly been involved in less than 20 traffic crashes to date, notably, none of these accidents has been caused by the autonomous vehicle.  This fact, along with other promising data about these vehicles, has led some to praise self-driving cars as being safer than standard passenger vehicles.

And it has led to predictions that the rollout of these vehicles could trigger a drastic drop in the number of car accidents, injuries and deaths that occur each year in the U.S.

When Drivers Have to Take the Wheel Back: Self-Driving Car Limitations

One of the biggest unknowns – and potentially biggest limitations – associated with self-driving cars is how these vehicles will fare in changing and adverse weather conditions. It’s important to note here that testing of these vehicles has only been conducted in California and Arizona (regions where the weather remains relatively mild and heavy rains/snow are not significant factors).

While further testing of these vehicles may lead to solutions for overcoming the weather-related issues, currently, drivers themselves have to take back control these computer-driven vehicles if or when:

  • Rain or snow begins to fall – Currently, there does not seem to be a feature that allows these vehicles to appropriately respond slicker roads that can come with these weather conditions.
  • Any weather (or road) conditions obscure the vehicle’s camera lens
  • Any weather conditions obstruct highway lane markers, traffic signs or signals, or other important driving cues.

Google’s Gauntlet of Self-Driving Vehicle Tests

Following more than six years of testing on self-driving vehicles, Google reported at the end of 2015 that their self-driving vehicles had experienced 272 failures requiring drivers to take over the wheel. While weather may have been a factor in some of these situations, clearly, there are additional limitations – beyond weather – that may limit the efficacy of these vehicles in real-world situations.

As more news about these vehicles becomes available, we will report the latest updates to you in a future blog. Until then, tell us what you think about self-driving cars – and their limitations – on Facebook & Google+.

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Categories: After a Crash, Auto Accident, Driver Negligence