back to article Stop lights, sunsets, junctions are tough work for Google's robo-cars

After cruising two million miles of public roads, Google's self-driving cars still find traffic lights, four-way junctions and other aspects of everyday life hard work. To be sure, the hardware and software at the heart of the autonomous vehicles is impressive. But it's just not quite good enough yet to be truly let loose on …

  1. Yesnomaybe

    Just very impressive.

    I think it is incredible that we are even seriously considering self-driving cars. Blows my mind that several companies are seriously pursuing it. What an incredible project to take on! I don't know how soon we will have a mainstream uptake of this technology, but even if it fizzles out, I believe the spin-off technological advance will probably make it worthwhile. I also believe that there is a bottle-neck we have to get through: Once the self-driving cars reach a certain tipping-point in number of vehicles on the road, then perhaps changing the infrastructure a bit to help will become more acceptable.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just very impressive.

      What impresses me most is that these "problem" situations are ones that I have experienced and sometimes failed. I know that I have missed traffic lights when nearly blinded by bright lights and come across road unfamiliar junctions where I had no clue who had priority. The red balloon in the picture would probably have fooled me for a second too in the right lighting conditions. My eyesight is ok (recently checked) so I suspect I'm not alone in making mistakes. In fact I have seen plenty of others drivers do just these sorts of thing. Personally I've not had an accident for 25+ years, and mostly when I see other drivers make these mistakes like me they get away with it, sometimes by luck and sometimes because another alert driver compensates. And this is probably where self driving cars will help the most: they are always alert so as long as they aren't blinded by the conditions they will save us distracted meat bag drivers from our own mistakes.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        "Missed" traffic lights

        Sometimes you will miss or otherwise not see a signal, due to sun blindness, something being in the way, or driven snow covering the signal (the downside of the new LED traffic lights is that they don't output enough heat to continually melt snow impacting them like the old school bulbs did)

        But people are smart enough to take other cues, such as "if cars traveling the opposite way are stopped, I probably need to stop also" or "if cars are crossing in front of me, that probably means they have green". It is easy to train cars for the latter (they hopefully wouldn't cross a green light no matter what if there were cars traveling in front of them) but I'm not so sure about the former.

        In intersections with separate left turn lanes, you might be green in your direction and the other direction will be red until yours turns red then they get green. Or they will be red for a time until all your left turners have turned. The car would need to be able to tell the difference between cars waiting to turn left because they either have a red light, or they have a green but must yield. Or there could be cars waiting to turn right, but they can't because cars traveling in your direction are turning left and have the right of way.

        There are a lot of complexities that software can't easily capture. The worn lane markings will make that even more difficult, and that's not something easily solved. Where I live it snows in the winter, and the plowing and sand spread and so forth wear down the paint. They re-paint the lanes every year on major roads, but they get worn down to the point of almost disappearing in the next year. In the winter when there's snow on the roads you determine where the lanes are based on where cars have driven. If it is fresh snow, you are basically blazing your own trail and hopefully get it right so it doesn't confuse cars who follow you later.

        I recall this past winter in such a situation I was driving in several inches of fresh snow on a street that is two way that becomes one way further on. I shifted over into the left lane as I needed to turn shortly after the one way transition but I guess I wasn't paying attention because I had shifted a block too early, and had to switch back because the little 'island' that directs traffic from another one way traveling the opposite direction to become the opposing lane of the two way was right in my path. If a self driving car decided following my tire tracks was a good way to know where the lanes are, it would risk driving into oncoming traffic if a car happened to be going in the opposite direction at that time. At the very least it would concern its passengers!

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: "Missed" traffic lights

          "the downside of the new LED traffic lights is that they don't output enough heat to continually melt snow impacting them like the old school bulbs did"

          CCTV cameras have had this problem forever and the solution is as simple as ever: A heating element and a thermostatic switch on the case and possibly on the sun hood (and for hot weather/solar forcing

          driving the enclosure temperature sky high & cooking the electronics, another thermostat attached to a fan)

          The fact that this problem had to be rediscovered and solved again decades after it had already been solved shows how poor humans are at applying fixes from one area to another.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Just very impressive.

        Ground human drivers. They are incapable of pulling over and stopping safely when the sun is behind a stop light.

        Just one more case where human critics get the message backwards.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Just very impressive.

          They don't need to pull over, but they might need to slow down to see the light. But it doesn't matter if you can infer from other evidence that it is red.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        "Sorry mate I didn't see you because ..."

        a:) the sun was in my eyes

        b:) I was on the phone

        c:) my googlecar failed to see you even with your hivis jacket and headlights on

        Cold comfort when you're lying on the ground waiting for an ambulance. Just another one to add to the long list of SMIDSY excuses.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: SMIDSY

          b:) I was on the phone

          This will soon be considered a criminal act in Canada. Laws are being drafted to deal with this unbelievable reckless act. At the beginning telephones in cars had interlocks couldn't be used until on park , because every engineer considered them a danger and they are. If you take the wheel , let go of that phone. This is as dangerous an act as letting a missile loose on the road . When you take your phone while you drive you put lives at risk and that's proven.

          I can't wait till the law is adopted and the criminals that kill people while driving because they are on the phones get arrested and thrown in jail where they belong.

          Harsh ? Yes .. but to those who get killed by a driver sending a SMS this is justice,.their lives are worth more than your f**&^%$# sms , yet there you are. Still wondering about downvoting .. go ahead.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: SMIDSY

            It is here, but does that stop them? I'll give you one guess...

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Just very impressive.

        "What impresses me most is that these "problem" situations are ones that I have experienced and sometimes failed."

        I've just been driving around South London on a sunny day and I can assure you that I have seen quite a lot of people fail to deal with stoplights, get confused at junctions, and obviously have sun in eyes problems.

        A robot vehicle doesn't have to be much better than the average person to be safer.

        Earlier this week I was less than 50m from a major tyre blowout on an Artic. I had to take evasive action from the moron with the trailer 2 feet wider than he was who decided just to cross the lane, while avoiding the overtaking BMW to my right. I just missed both, but I suspect a robotic car with its reliable, faster reactions would have done a better job. And it wouldn't have had an attack of the shivers fifteen minutes later when the adrenaline wore off and I realised how close we had come to a multi-car pileup.

        I guess a robotic artic would have been monitoring all its tyre pressures too, and have taken itself off the road at the previous service station.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Just very impressive.

      There is no 'spinoff' technology.

      You already have autonomous driving vehicles in terms of ag vehicles which route themselves based on GPS w a known ground station. LIDAR already exists and the LIDAR is being down graded to get the costs in line. GPS? While there are newer sats going up, and you could use other existing tech, like using a known positioned base station, you need a more accurate clock and better antenna. They already exist so no real net new tech. Just upgrades/downgrades on existing tech.

      Code? Maybe, better at decision making.

      (e.g. The balloon in front of the light. LIDAR would be able to identify it as a separate object, however you'd need some more advanced computing power to do that identification so you need to combine LIDAR w photo imaging. )

      Sorry to be a debbie downer, but not really impressive outside of morphing and using existing tech.

      1. Yesnomaybe

        Re: Just very impressive.

        Well the thing about spinoff technology is that it can be of an unexpected nature. If you knew what it would be, you probably wouldn't bother talking about it here.

        1. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Just very impressive.

          "Well the thing about spinoff technology is that it can be of an unexpected nature."


          For an automotive example: Decades of gas turbine engine(GTE) research in cars didn't give us gas turbine cars. But it did give us the Toyota Prius.

          To explain: When you change the throttle setting on a GTE, the rotational speed takes a long time to change but the torque changes instantly. In addition, GTEs are only really efficient at one rpm setting and preferably near full load.

          In order to create a driveable car, Toyota developed a computer controlled CVT gearbox which allowed the GTE to stay at constant RPM but take the changed torque and translate that into velocity changes at the roadwheels.

          In order to allow for multiple engines, they developed a compact multiple-input/single-output gearbox - computer controlled of course. That gearbox had to transmit power from one engine to another in order to spin the second one up and power from roadwheels back to the engines to provide engine braking.

          Change one of the engines to an Atkinson/Miller cycle piston engine and the other to an electric motor-generator and you have the core of Toyota's "Hybrid Synergy Drive". It wasn't what anyone was expecting when the focus was on automotive 60kW gas turbines.

  2. AndrewDu

    " all the compute technology required is packed into this chassis"

    Well, not quite all, because as the article explains in some detail, the systems are nowhere near real-world ready.

    The argument really is whether they ever will be; after all, the problems illustrated are all on American roads, which are basically wide and straight with right-angle junctions, plenty of signage, and reasonably law-abiding drivers. How would it go in Naples, I wonder?

    Nirvana is further away than you think imho.

    1. Peter 26


      The bit that got me was the 4 way junction without lights that really confused it, where drivers have to decide with other drivers who goes first. Sounds just like a roundabout in the UK which we have everywhere...

      1. Peter 26

        Re: Roundabouts...

        In reply to myself I think the solution is to just change the infrastructure. Add wireless signals to lights, put intelligent traffic lights on all roundabouts.

        It will cost a lot, but I don't think it is too much. At first we will start with the hybrid car that self drives most of the time, but still needs our input from time to time. Everyone will get tired of this and start pushing the government to upgrade the lights and roundabouts to handle the new cars so that they can finally become autonomous.

        I'd image the major cities would implement this first allowing the the fully autonomous taxi's etc.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Roundabouts...

          Roundabouts are un-American, and actually forbidden by the constitution.

          1. present_arms

            Re: Roundabouts...

            Actually Roundabouts are an American invention, The Brits however sorted who had priority

        2. DaLo

          Re: Roundabouts...

          "Add wireless signals to lights, put intelligent traffic lights on all roundabouts."

          Already being done, production cars available next year. Audi traffic light Information tech to roll out in US cities

          1. Peter2 Silver badge

            Re: Roundabouts...

            In the UK we don't generally have any traffic lights on roundabouts, so that is probably not going to help much.

            The laws of the UK state that you should give way to vehicles oncoming from the right, however most drivers either forget this (or don't know) so people generally tend to respect the other laws involved, those being the laws of physics.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Roundabouts...

              "...most drivers either forget this (or don't know)"

              Eh? Don't know what places you frequent but on the whole most drivers clearly do give way to vehicles coming from their right on a roundabout.

              1. Shane McCarrick

                Re: Roundabouts...

                Wish they did- you'd be shocked at the number of continental drivers around here who take the roundabout in the wrong direction (same fools who drive up the exit ramps off the motorway........)

                The best rule of thumb would appear to be- expect the unexpected, and take whatever action you need to take to preserve yourself and your vehicle from harm.

                1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

                  Re: Roundabouts...

                  take whatever action you need to take to preserve yourself and your vehicle from harm.

                  There are different interpretations of what constitutes "whatever"....the way that the 'push the fat man' problem' is handled by humans (based on instinct) and computers (based on cold hard logic)

            2. Steve 114

              Re: Roundabouts...

              And in our part of Sussex, if your wheels are cautiously ON the roundabout and a 'speed king' proposes to enter still from 50 yards AWAY to your right, much hooting ensues. I've given up playing chicken, because 'Might is not Right' when it comes to hammering out dents.

            3. Mark Dempster

              Re: Roundabouts...

              There are quite a few roundabouts in Gloucestershire that have traffic lights on them. The worst ones are those that have lights immediately after the exit - so that if they turn red, only one car can come off the roundabout onto the desired road. Anyone else wanting to come off at that junction has no choice but to stop while on the roundabout, immediately jamming it for everyone else.

              I'd like to have a word with whatever idiot came up with that idea...

              1. AndrueC Silver badge

                Re: Roundabouts...

                The worst ones are those that have lights immediately after the exit

                Yah, there's one like that on the main artery into Banbury from the M40.

                It's a pedestrian crossing and quite active during rush hour. There's space for two cars to wait - the third will block one of the busiest roundabouts in the town. The council have tried to encourage people to keep it clear with road markings but honestly by the time you realise the traffic is stopped it's just too late.

          2. Goatshadow

            Re: Roundabouts...

            One of the worst ideas I've ever read about. Who would want Audi reliability in the system that tells their (or someone else's) car to stop or not at an intersection?

          3. B Bunter

            Re: Roundabouts...

            I couldn't agree more. Certainly the car needs to recognise as much as possible without intelligent stop signs, pedestrian walks (pedestrian cell phone location services data feeds), traffic lights, road marking chips etc etc, but all of this technology would provide an extensive safety net, and where it existed, dramatically speed up the cars decision making times. It seems to me that all of the traffic control systems are really just designed for one type of driver, the human one, shouldn't we be now catering for the artificial one too?

        3. AndrueC Silver badge

          Re: Roundabouts...

          put intelligent traffic lights on all roundabouts.

          That would likely make them less efficient. Roundabouts are usually more efficient than other junctions simply because of the drivers' ability to go at 'any' time. They work really well unless overloaded in which case they fail spectacularly :-/

      2. gerdesj Silver badge

        Re: Roundabouts...

        "The bit that got me was the 4 way junction without lights that really confused it, "

        I forget exactly what they are called but it is essentially "cross in turn" ie you can normally work out who got there first and wait your turn to cross. Our smaller roundabouts end up a bit like that.

        Now for a real test I want to see these things manage the Magic Roundabout in Swindon at peak traffic.

        1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

          Re: Roundabouts...

          Now for a real test I want to see these things manage the Magic Roundabout in Swindon at peak traffic.

          Or negotiating the chaos that surrounds l'Arc de Triomph in Paris. I've observed the traffic there both from street level as a pedestrian, and looking down from the top of the arch....and never been able to fathom just what the heck was going on.

          1. Steve 114

            Re: Roundabouts...

            My experience (when L'Etoile roads were wider there and thus more ambiguous) was that you could proceed with curses unless your front wings were actually touching something. I once ate a whole Camembert while politely seeking, in a pale blue Ford Anglia, to exit that ultimate roundabout without contact. Engine seized on the way to Dieppe, but 'those were the days', and we knew where to put some oil (when clearly indicated).

          2. Uffish

            Re: Roundabouts...

            What you have to understand is that the Arc de Triomphe roundabout has a different rule than most, but not all, roundabouts in France. It's the old rule, superseded for most but not all French roads - 'priorité à droit'. That and not loosing your no claims bonus.

        2. smartypants

          Re: Roundabouts...

          "Our smaller roundabouts end up a bit like that"

          No! They work like all roundabouts... It is a not first come, first served. If you start applying your own rules it's going to end up nasty.

      3. Cuddles Silver badge

        Re: Roundabouts...

        "The bit that got me was the 4 way junction without lights that really confused it, where drivers have to decide with other drivers who goes first. Sounds just like a roundabout in the UK which we have everywhere..."

        The trick is that the US rarely has roundabouts so they're talking literally about a junction that has 4 rounds going in with absolutely no hint at who might have right of way. If you look at the link in the article given as an example, you can see that there are actually two lanes in every direction, plus two tram lines crossing over and four zebra crossings surrounding the whole thing. Roundabouts exist specifically to solve this sort of problem, but for some reason America usually prefers to set up a massive clusterfuck instead.

        1. bjr

          Re: Roundabouts...

          We have rotaries (the American name for roundabouts) in Massachusetts. A machine would have one advantage over a human, it would know who has right of way. All we poor humans know is that the law changed a few decades ago but we don't know how. Either cars entering the rotary had right of way before and now cars in the rotary have right of way, or maybe cars in the rotary had right of way and now cars entering the rotary have it.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            @bjr -- Re: Roundabouts...

            I think the term "rotary" is a local thing. Depending on where I've lived here in the States, I've heard them called "roundabouts", "traffic circles", and "rotaries". One small town even called theirs the "Mini Darlington".

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Roundabouts...

            I was wondering if someone would straighten this out... There are "roundabouts" all over the US. The only difference is that we call them silly things here like "traffic calming circles" (Maryland)

        2. IT Poser

          Re: Roundabouts...

          In recent years there has been an attempt to replace our traditional intersections with roundabouts. For some reason we have included the worst aspects of our intersections with the worst roundabouts can dish out. The results are as one would expect.

      4. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: Roundabouts...

        4-Way ALL Stop junctions are a lottery. It seems that he who puts their foot down first wins the game of chicken. It is a wonder that more people aren't killed on them than they are.

        Frankly, they are mad but the alternative is a 4-way stop light system.

        Sadly, the road planners in the UK have got 'traffic light madness' these days.

        Everywhere you go they seem to think that the ONLY solution is to put traffic lights in even when other solutinos have worked well for decades.

        Well, that and painting acres of road with white lines this reducing the usable area by up to 50%.

        1. wayne 8

          Re: Four Way Stop...

          First to stop, first to go.

          In case of a tie yield to the driver on the your right.

          In case of oncoming vehicle with left turn signal on, make eye contact, and allow the opposing vehicle turn before proceeding or not.

          It is a collision avoidance multiple access network.

          Some drivers sit at the stop sign and wait until another vehicle comes to a complete stop before proceeding, no matter how slow the approach. They are not optimized for throughput.

      5. collinsl

        Re: Roundabouts...

        Well thankfully roundabouts tend to be more obvious - you give way to the right, and if that's clear you can go. Anyone already on the roundabout that would prevent you pulling out safely has priority.

        It's mini roundabouts where all entrances are filled simeltaneously that will have problems, and then it's the same as the 4-way stop - the person who moves first goes first.

      6. Shane McCarrick

        Re: Roundabouts...


        Yield to traffic coming from the right- and any traffic already on the junction automatically has priority?

        And- of course- get a move on- failure to make sufficient progress- will cause people to cut you off.

      7. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

        Re: Roundabouts...

        Sounds just like a roundabout in the UK which we have everywhere...

        I don't understand everyone's* confusion over (full-sized) roundabouts. There is only one simpler junction: A T-junction onto a one-way road.

        The reason that's the only simpler one is that a roundabout is just several T junctions onto a single circular one-way road. Someone's already on the road (i.e. roundabout)? You give way to them. It's neither difficult nor complicated.

        Part of the problem is the complicated methods people use to describe a roundabout and it's usage. But if you consider the roundabout a circular one-way road and the exits/entries as T-junctions, you will have no problem understanding, and there will never be confusion over who get's to go and when (unlike 4-way stops or unmarked junctions).

        * I obviously don't mean everyone, but there are a significant number of Brits who can't understand them, let alone foreigners.

      8. PickledAardvark

        Re: Roundabouts...

        The millions of miles travelled by Google's autonomous cars were tested on 25 mph roads. They have not been tested in highway environments. When tested in the USA, a human is on board.

        No fully autonomous cars have been tested at 08:30 in Birmingham, UK on a roundabout with motorway slip roads.

        Google's cars are designed for Google people living in Google towns. Companies which actually make and sell cars are more honest about their ambitions. Ford Motor Co's blow off comment that they'll be selling autonomous cars shortly was embarrassing but I hope that it doesn't discourage the more mature development of autonomous cars.

        1. AndrueC Silver badge

          Re: Roundabouts...

          No fully autonomous cars have been tested at 08:30 in Birmingham, UK on a roundabout with motorway slip roads.

          Or at 1630 driving through Kings Heath :(

          I only commuted back that way once. After that I always just went north to get onto the M5 then round to the M42.

          1. An ominous cow heard

            Re: Roundabouts...

            "1630 driving through Kings Heath :(

            I only commuted back that way once. After that I always just went north to get onto the M5 then round to the M42."

            Working as intended then, though some drivers still manage to miss the point, that slower traffic is generally safer traffic in urban areas [1]. The locals get used to the queues, regulars find another more appropriate route (as you did). Some even use public transport (the 50 route through Kings Heath is said to be one of the busiest in Europe [2]).

            Of course the abuse of Kings Heath's narrow side streets (e.g. the one adjacent(ish) to Asda/Safeway/Presto directly opposite the route 50 bus stop outside the Cross Guns) which are barely big enough for anything bigger than a Volvo estate but are frequently blocked by HGVs delivering to the shops and also blocking the High Street at the same time, just adds to the fun.

            At one stage there was a half-brained proposal to put a road tunnel under Kings Heath. In nearly forty years in B13 and B14, I've never been to a public meeting as overcrowded as the first one where that proposal was discussed (and massively rejected).

            [1] Fatal case of "sorry mate I didn't see you":



      9. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Roundabouts...

        The bit that got me was the 4 way junction without lights that really confused it, where drivers have to decide with other drivers who goes first.

        4-way stops are ridiculously common in USA.

        Basically, you stop as you approach the intersection and wait till all the other vehicles that were there before you have gone and the proceed.

        The unwritten rule is to yield to cars to your right if you arrive at the same time.

        The 4-way stops with two or three lanes of traffic each direction get more interesting.

        The reason Yield signs (give way) aren't used in intersections is that nobody would pay attention to them. The antisocial American "Me First" mentality that is so deeply ingrained in the culture would prevent it.

        Worse still is when drivers here "do a good deed" (like letting someone exit a parking lot onto the main road in front of them) to make themselves feel all morally superior and better than other drivers, when all they're really doing is annoying the drivers who were behind them and now have to wait through another traffic light cycle.

    2. David Lewis 2

      "How would it go in Naples, I wonder?"

      That's an easy problem. It would just need two rules:

      1. Ignore all road signs.

      2. Rely on collision avoidance!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        You forgot:

        3. Sound horn. Continuously.

        1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

          RE: sound horn

          I think it was PJ o'Rourke who referred to the car horn as "the Italian brake pedal"

          1. Primus Secundus Tertius

            Re: RE: sound horn

            New York City seems to be pwered by car horns.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: RE: Re: the Italian brake pedal

            Its also called it the Egyptian brake pedal.

            And the Chinese brake pedal.

            Screw it, let's get all multicutural and rename it the break pedal 'cause when you use it, something's gonna break.

      2. Graham Marsden

        It's "Priority", not "Right of Way"

        The term "Right of Way" is actually defined as the right to "pass and re-pass" across a piece of land, ie you can do so repeatedly without needing to ask (or be given) permission.

        "Priority" means that you are legally entitled to go first, so if a pedestrian steps out into the street in front of a car and gets knocked down, they can't complain that it wasn't their fault because they had Right of Way. There are exceptions, of course, for example at a Zebra Crossing where once the pedestrian has set foot on it, they *do* have Priority and vehicles MUST stop for them.

        Similarly, at a roundabout, you MUST give Priority to vehicles coming from the right, if you fail to do so and this results in an accident, you'll be liable.

        1. annodomini2

          Re: It's "Priority", not "Right of Way"

          @Graham Marsden, Actually the first priority with a roundabout is give way to traffic already on the roundabout.

      3. smartypants

        Judging by the shape of the average car in Naples, I don't think they're fussed about avoiding collisions. Bumpers are there to be used, and I believe you can order a new car 'pre-dented' to avoid any initial nerves about the first prang.

    3. Primus Secundus Tertius


      You are quite right. I have visited countries where they paint zebra crossings on the road, but nobody pays any attention, least of all the pedestrians. Americans and Germans usually cross only at a crossing; in Britain we are more flexible. Taking a Google car abroad could be exciting, from keep-left UK to right-on Europe. And those countries where they just drive in the middle anyway.

      UK roundabouts have two priority conventions: (1) the Highway Code scheme, (2) the heavy lorry scheme. It will take a smart computer to make the right decisions there.

      But the road safety campaigners and the police will want to encourage robotic cars. All speed limits rigidly obeyed, all traffic lights (even the most exasperating roadworks ones) obeyed, cars arrested at the flash of a blue light.

    4. IT Poser

      You've never driven in Pittsburgh

      Roads are rarely straight with right-angle intersections. Even roads that are relatively straight can change names several times over the course of a couple miles and signage varies greatly in that time. Five, six and even seven way intersections are common. Staying on 279 through downtown requires diving across multiple lanes. Yinzer lefts(running a red light to make a left turn before opposing traffic begins moving) are the rule. In addition to sun we also have these things called rain, snow, snain and fog.

      If a self-driving car can make it here they can make it anywhere.

      Just to give you an idea what locals face here is a major intersection:,-79.9954395,3a,90y,222.05h,75.17t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sBM2MDtZwSJYQWB_U9yrnUg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x96fd8fc1f9d775ce!6m1!1e1

      Also, that is not a pothole, this is a pothole:

  3. JimmyPage

    So ? Humans can mis-see things too.

    Even delivering a system which drives a car with the same performance as a regular human would result in some subpar decisions.

    What %age are we going to accept. Clearly not 100. 110% ? 120% ?

    1. Jad

      Re: So ? Humans can mis-see things too.

      we shouldn't compare to humans, better to compare to horses!

      1. CowardlyLion

        Re: So ? Humans can mis-see things too.

        Or this one...

  4. Chris Miller

    They'll also need to be aware that if the other car at a 4-way stop (or a roundabout in the UK) is a Mercedes*, they are unlikely to be stopping for anything, regardless of road conditions.

    Can they also detect drivers wearing a hat?

    * Substitute your own 'favourite' manufacturer as necessary.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Autonomous cars apparently have no difficulty in detecting other cars and measuring their movement vectors. If said whatever-your-pet-hate-is has a vector that puts the autonomous vehicle in danger, I trust that it will be able to avoid a collision by braking before entering the danger zone.

      The major issue, apparently, is reacting properly to road conditions, not other drivers.

    2. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Quite right. You can order the S-series models with built-in priority as an optional extra.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How it will happen ...

    For self-driving/autonomous cars to work, we'll need to provide a more controlled environment.

    Motorways (freeways)

    So the first phase will be stretches of road where "autonomous control is permitted" (anyone dreamt up a roadsign yet ?).

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: How it will happen ...

      (anyone dreamt up a roadsign yet ?).

      Side view of a stick figure in drivers' seat (steering wheel in front), snoring? Road stretches allowing autonomous driving should be thusly indicated in the car's navigation system too.

    2. Warm Braw Silver badge

      Re: How it will happen ...

      If only there was some way of joining up all those autonomous vehicles into a kind of convoy, perhaps you could add some guide rails to keep them on course.

      And maybe in city centres you could join strings of buses together and run them under the streets.

      1. JimmyPage

        Re: Under streets ?

        Have you not seen the Chinese bus/tram which runs *over* streets

        1. Mark 85 Silver badge

          Re: Under streets ? -- Chinese bus design

          That has possibilities as it's not so much a bus but a reinvention of the train/bus for in city use. I rather like it.

          The only thing I can see being a problem is human drivers trying to beat it to the next corner to turn while the bus is going straight ahead. Also, you're driving down the street and then you see this thing coming right at you. Some serious retraining of drivers will probably be needed.

    3. Mage Silver badge

      Re: provide a more controlled environment.

      Do railways first, then trams. Forget cars for now.

    4. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: How it will happen ...

      White microchip in blue solid circle for autonomous driving permitted. Black microchip in white background with red circle and red diagonal line through it to mark the end of the zone.

  6. This post has been deleted by a moderator

  7. DaLo


    Some of those don't seem difficult at all? The ball in front of the lights, surely the lidar system or stereo cameras could detect that the red traffic light doesn't usually float on its own. Similarly the lidar or stereo cameras could surely detect the housing of a traffic light unit and therefore place the lights within it, avoiding problems with sunlight, balls, other signs etc.

  8. ridley

    They are doing it wrong, they need Duckietown!

    I am just going to have to try and get some of the kids I teach to have a go at this.

  9. 101

    "...installing computer-friendly traffic signals or embedding wireless guides under the roads or mandating that autonomous cars are painted in one color and human-driven cars in another – is out of the window. It's just not an option."

    Sure it's an option. All the corporate-military regime need to is say the magic word: "Security".

    That opens the taxpayer till for as many trillions or billions it takes to make us "safe".

  10. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    I'm impressed

    The fact that - for the most part - these cars seem to be working is very impressive. Sure, sometimes there will be accidents but I'm confident that the technology will reduce these over time. I'm a lot less confident that human drivers will reduce their accident rates over the same time period.

    It's interesting that most of the self-driving cars seem to be in the US which is a very car-concentric country with little public transport - it seems to me that a future with self-driving cars for local A-B trips and a decent public transport system for the A-Z trips might work but I don't see the US trying that path at all.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I'm impressed

      So far as I'm concerned, the acid test for self-driving cars is not traffic lights, other cars, or street furniture. It's how well they cope with cyclists. (Yes, even the ones who have no concept of the highway code and no concept of self-preservation.) My biggest worry is that those of us who do cycle fully abiding with the law will be kicked off the roads because autonomous vehicles can't cope with the suicidal maniacs who give all the other cyclists a bad reputation. The net result of that is that I'd have to start driving to work...

      1. JimmyPage

        Re:how well they cope with cyclists

        The easiest - and cheapest - solution to that is to not allow the two to mix in the first place.

        In the same way any sane person would never mix bikes and cars in the same space.

  11. a pressbutton Silver badge

    How it will happen really

    Changing infrastructure for driverless cars across the *whole* road network will not happen

    (a) expensive and (b) rather 19/20th century

    Some changes may be made - rather like mobile phones in Africa - build some masts rather than a lot of expensive copper - i.e. limited change.

    When there are enough diverless cars on the road, they will talk to each other and solve the problem co-operatively.

    Networked cars

    Oh no, nothing can go wrong there...

    In the UK there seems to be a constant program of digging up the motorway system to make it wider / concrete central barriers / smart ... and I can see something being done in limited circumstances.

    However I do see self driving cars being viable on freeways / autobahns / motorways as the problem set is so much more limited.

    istr the new merc e class can 'drive' on motorways right now.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How it will happen really

      I agree, merely getting to the point where they can operate entirely autonomously on freeways but hand control back to you when you exit would be huge. While I certainly wouldn't mind being able to drive myself to the bar, have a few drinks, and have my car drive me home, the biggest win for me would be when I'm traveling on the freeway for more than 10-15 miles, and would rather be doing something else like working, surfing the web, talking on the phone, or maybe even catching a nap if the trip was long enough.

      If I wanted to go to Times Square in NYC I'd have to catch two flights, and from the time I leave for the airport I have:

      30 minutes to airport

      60 minutes from arrival to take off

      60 minutes first flight

      >=90 minutes until next flight

      150 minutes second flight

      >=90 minutes getting off plane and reaching Times Square

      That's at least 8 hours, assuming no delays. It is roughly 1000 miles to drive for me, a self driving car obeying all speed limits could probably do it in 14. If you add in sleep it is basically a wash. If I started out in at say 7 pm Central I could watch movies (or whatever I might do if I was at home on the night before travel) until I get tired, lay the seat back flat and catch some sleep, then wake up refreshed and miss the worst of rush hour with my 10 AM Eastern arrival.

      My current car gets about 30 mpg on the highway, for that round trip with gas selling at about $2.20 currently that's only $150 - WAY cheaper than a round trip ticket AND far more enjoyable than a TSA groping and sitting in coach! It would still be a great deal even if gas went back up to $4/gallon. It would be even cheaper with an electric that's both more efficient and can be charged with renewable energy to reduce pollution versus an airplane (assuming enough others did this that there were fewer flights scheduled)

    2. PickledAardvark

      Re: How it will happen really

      It will happen really...

      "However I do see self driving cars being viable on freeways / autobahns / motorways as the problem set is so much more limited."

      Having concluded that nobody sells a car to fucking to do it.

      1. a pressbutton Silver badge

        Re: How it will happen really

        ... apart from mercedes and tesla so far this year.

  12. Mage Silver badge

    processors that were stupidly fast


    It's a programming problem.

    We also don't really know how people do it and real computer AI isn't invented yet (Only domain specific expert Systems = Databases and badly Simulated Intelligence) as we don't actually even understand any form of biological learning or intelligence.

    Why aren't there trains without drivers first? A much more controlled problem. Then trams. Exactly what is Google's motivation on automated cars?

    1. a pressbutton Silver badge

      Re: processors that were stupidly fast

      I think you outlined why Google are concentrating on cars.

      It may be an honest solution to this this problem (driving) is one of the most efficient routes we know of to properly solve AGI.

    2. Magani

      Re: processors that were stupidly fast

      "Why aren't there trains without drivers first?"

      Umm, Docklands Light Rail??

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: processors that were stupidly fast

      "Why aren't there trains without drivers first? "

      There are. Why aren't there more? Unions - as simple as that. Large parts of the London underground don't *need* a driver, the trains can already be run driverless.

      1. collinsl

        Re: processors that were stupidly fast

        Sadly, no. They are only ATO level 2 (with the exception of the DLR which is ATO 3) which means the driver is still required to operate the doors and tell the train when it is safe to depart.

        More info:

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: processors that were stupidly fast

          They are only ATO2 due to the unions. The trains don't *need* a driver, they only need an operator to open and close the doors. Due to pay and staff levels this is the 'driver' that does it.

          In other news, the unions believes that it is unsafe for a driver to operate the doors and requires a conductor to do it. So if the conductor could operate the doors on the tube then it wouldn't need a driver, surely?

    4. collinsl

      Re: processors that were stupidly fast

      Docklands Light Railway

      Alternatively, the Central/Northern/Jubilee/Victoria lines all have Automatic Train Operation - all the driver does is monitor the doors and press "go" and the train takes the strain (to quote the IC 125 ads)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: processors that were stupidly fast

        DLR is a rather constrained environment (and thus relatively simple problem domain) compared with railways elsewhere, let alone roads in general.

    5. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: processors that were stupidly fast

      Why aren't there trains without drivers first?

      Passenger mental comfort level type of thing. Union clout notwithstanding, there is a lot of mental comfort just from knowing that there's someone "up front" monitoring and running things.

  13. Dead Parrot

    Your processors are fine

    But your algorithms are wank, and you can't write assembly. Just saying....

  14. SVV Silver badge

    please stop this

    Virtual reality, artificial intelligence. this year it's self driving cars.........

    Please consign to the dustbin of hyped up nonsense before we all die of boredom.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not by 2020

    First, the computing power required isn't there yet. All of that kit in the rack would have to be shrunk by several orders of magnitude in size. Even with Moore's law, you will have to have several main processors dedicated to specific tasks and then a central CPU taking that logic in. Most of it will require an RTOS and these systems will require some redundancy.

    Second, you will have to deal with obstacles that are also moving and can move erratically or in unpredictable directions. (e.g. pigeons, deer, etc... )

    Other drivers....

    The point is that while you can constantly improve the driver assist mode, you can't easily make it autonomous.

    Lets also not forget the cost.

    Google and others have predicted and promised based on hype.

    If you cant get xpoint or crossbar memory to work and are already 2 years behind the promised release, then you aren't going to get this working by 2020. And xpoint/crossbar reRam is a critical component in making this work.

    There's more, much more in terms of senors and identifying traffic. including modernizing the infrastructure. Not an easy task.

    Posted Anon for the obvious reasons.

  16. ma1010 Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Thank you for the truth

    This is a great article. I'm so tired of reading tons of bollocks about "We're going to be mass producing self-driving cars by 2022" and so forth. This article highlights some of the real world problems that go into creating autonomous vehicles, and the fact that while we've learned a lot, we still have a long way to go before we really have self-driving cars.

    While Google may be "projecting" having self-driving cars by 2020, I think it's clear that it will take more than 4 more years to get the bugs out of the project to where the cars actually work.

  17. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    Still a ways away from driverless cars

    Every few months I come across a situation where construction or repairs requires the placement of a temporary stop sign, or certainly road workers directing traffic. So how does a Googlemobile tell the difference between a road worker directing you into the oncoming lane (which is supporting alternating shifts of one-way traffic) and some people by the side of the road dancing or waving at cars?

  18. Dennis 1

    Light Spectrum and some lateral thinking

    Assuming that most traffic lights are getting their bulbs replaced with LED arrays in the next 10 years, why not agree a standardard that the array also outputs specific wavelenths outside the visible spectrum that a camera can easily detect and isn't drowned out by glare from our star.

    could also do something in high-frequency directed sound also to make double sure.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Light Spectrum and some lateral thinking

      The Sun is only really a problem when it is directly behind the traffic light. It outputs on all frequencies from long radio waves to X rays so just using something outside of the visible range doesn't solve anything. Fortunately the Sun is only behind the traffic light from certain direction/distance combinations, so as long as the hidden signal was strong enough to be visible from a couple hundred feet away you don't have to worry about the Sun because you'll have some views of the signal without the Sun overwhelming it. When it is very low in the horizon it might not be visible to the car until you get close so maybe the car will need to slow when approaching those intersections near both dawn and dusk but that's not a big deal.

      Whatever frequency you use it should be 1) able to travel well through fog/rain/snow at least 50 feet or so and 2) directional enough that the car can tell it is coming from the traffic light (to avoid bad guys trying to fake signals and cause trouble - you could encrypt it with a private key, but with millions of traffic lights it would only be a matter of time before it became known)

  19. sjsmoto

    I might trust a self-driving car after Google's board of directors have been using them exclusively for their transportation for a year.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    CSMA/CD ?

    "Human motorists rely on eye contact to know when it's safe to go or just take the initiative and move first. A driver-less car gets stuck trying to safely nudge its way across the box."

    Is everybody in this picture too young to remember (and too dumb to read about) Car Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detect?

    If you see someone else's car where you want to be, at the same time you want to be there, you back off, and a semi-deterministic algorithm determines when you have another go (so you don't spend forever saying "you next", "no, you", "no, you").

    If you detect a collision, you ... err, OK, more of a problem, that one.

    1. PickledAardvark

      Re: CSMA/CD ?

      When I cycled, I used Back of Head analysis. If I'm looking at Back of Head, s/he hasn't spotted me and is likely to pull out in a strange way.

  21. nedge2k

    The fundamental part of a self driving system, before ANYTHING else, is being able to see - i.e. decent cameras. I don't care what clever tricks you can come up with in terms of radar/lidar/ultrasonics, no camera (that would be fitted to a car anytime soon) can match the human eye's abilities. As humans, if our vision becomes impaired, our license is taken away. Until a camera can match the human eye, self driving is a dangerous pipe dream. In fact, even if there were cameras that could match or beat the human eye's abilities (and were cost effective enough to put in a car - all about the margins remember), self driving cars are an accident waiting to happen - especially the ones planned with no manual controls! What happens when there's a system crash - software never has bugs, right? System hack - auto makers are great at security, right? EMP? Radar jamming? IR floodlight? What about all the other cars with ultrasonics pinging about, telling me they're all going to happily co-exist?

    It's progress for the sake of progress, it's already killed once, it won't be the last time and it'll lull the great unwashed into a false sense of security, then they die.

    Fuck ABS, fuck traction control, fuck parking sensors. Strip all that shit back and teach people how to drive properly. Gimme a Mk2 Escort with a roll cage and harnesses any day of the week.

    </rant> :)

  22. PickledAardvark

    1907 Peking to Paris Race

    The 1907 Peking to Paris race victor won a bottle of champagne after a trip of 9,300 odd miles. Trains and camels delivered fuel and new tyres to servicing stations, but the car and passengers were on their own between stations. The race has been re-enacted five times, and more recent participants benefitted from truckers to drag them across flooded rivers.

    Peking to Paris was organised 20 years after the London to Brighton run -- the run celebrated the lifting of speed restrictions in the UK, but it was used by car sellers to demonstrate the potential of their wares. London to Brighton was a day trip (if the car worked) but getting stuck in Siberia?

    If the vendors of autonomous cars are serious, they have to build a car that goes from Peking to Paris on its own. One of the great things about autonomous vehicles is that nobody needs to die as part of the experiment. There will be times when every car needs to cross a river on the back of a weird looking truck. Aside from the time on the truck, the car has to drive itself.

    After all, it's only 9,300 miles and Google tells us that their cars have driven millions of miles.

  23. quxinot Silver badge

    Because I love the act of driving so, I cannot wait for these autonomous cars to become common.

    And then, I'm wanting hacks for other cars as well as for the traffic lights. Other cars can go into meek & mild mode, and the lights will always be green! (Untill they're blue and on the roof of the guy behind me, probably!)

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Autonomous cars are not the solution.

    This is the most convoluted, expensive, and inefficient way to solve traffic problems. Adding more cars to the roads is what contributes to traffic in the first place, and all these promises of efficiency gains from automation haven't been proven with any of the prototypes so far.

    Stop building cars! The only way to make more efficient transit is to reduce the number of variables, and Google is basically saying roads are too unpredictable to for autonomous cars. This is a problem that many countries have addressed by investing in TRAINS, which aren't as susceptible to weather.

    Come on, people. The United States highway system was originally built to aid the defense of military bases in the event of an invasion, because Eisenhower was a paranoid mess after WWII. It took until 2001 for the next major attack on U.S. soil, and in that case the traffic jams in downtown NYC only exacerbated the situation.

    There is no defensible excuse for failing to expand railways in the United States. And seeing Google asking for government assistance to help roll out the cars is just rubbing salt in the wound.

    Fucking stupid.

    1. PickledAardvark

      Re: Autonomous cars are not the solution.

      "The United States highway system was originally built to aid the defense of military bases in the event of an invasion, because Eisenhower was a paranoid mess after WWII."

      Or it was just Keynesianism. Or the Merkin version.

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: Autonomous cars are not the solution.

        Personally, I like to think of the highway system as a gift to GM, Ford and Chrysler. After all, they had to convert back from military production to civilian production - after having increased their production capabilities considerably during the war.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rush to market mentality

    As we have seen with the Tesla model S, a rush to market mentality on self-driving cars can be lethal. With two or more fatalities linked to the tesla S when operated in autonomous mode, it's clear that Tesla and engineering friends have failed to build mission critical class AVs with fail safe systems - which should be mandated by all federal governments and documented to be fail safe before these vehicles are allowed on roadways.

    Google like Tesla has had problems with AV operation with numerous accidents and mechanical failures because they are going about the entire project bass ackwards. You design a fail safe mission critical system and then you build the car around it instead of trying to retro fit a cobbled together system that isn't adequate nor reliable.

  26. Herby

    Yellow lights...

    It might need to understand yellow lights. I am reminded of a scene in _Taxi_:

    What does a yellow light mean?

    Go slower.


    Go slower!





    My question has always been: Will the self driving car park in my garage (so I can get out of the car!)?

    1. PickledAardvark

      Re: Yellow lights...

      We don't apprehend, comprehend or condescend Merkins. Sometimes we just don't understand.

  27. DanceMan

    Turning Left at Yellows

    The accepted practice here in Vancouver for turning left is to get into the intersection as far as possible, then wait for the oncoming traffic to finish coming through, usually partway or completely through the yellow period, then complete your left turn. How does a self-driving car deal with this situation?

    Our traffic is now sufficiently heavy throughout the day and evening, that if you don't follow this system, no one would be able to turn left at intersections that lack a discrete left turn signal.

  28. Jeffrey Nonken

    Autonomous-car-friendly infrastructure isn't really out the window, it's just not a short-term solution. But if such cars become popular enough, the technology and infrastructure will start being improved organically.

    Not to say it won't take time, though. Google have to work with what they have for now. Just saying there's a difference between "never" and "indefinitely".

    Still won't help with kids running into traffic, of course.

  29. JeffyPoooh


    "A.I. is hard."

    That is all.

  30. JimmyPage

    And now streetview makes more sense

    I am sure that Google will use streetview to help automated navigation easier .... compare what you are seeing with what Google has previously analysed to be the edges and features to fix on, and the differences are where you need to apply processing power.

  31. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken
  32. strum

    At some point (god knows when) we will have to start designing roads to suit robocars - with WiFi-enabled traffic signs and pre-loaded priority logic.

    Us meatbags (if we're allowed out at all) will just have to learn to use them.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020