Driving in snowy, icy conditions is a challenge. Slippery road surfaces, patches of partially frozen snow sitting over ice or the powdery, quite grippy fresh snow that disguises kerbs and potholes. Throw in overly protective electronics that email mom if you encourage wheelspin to help get the car up a gradient, summer tires that excel in skidding at walking pace, off-the-beaten-track roads that will be treated with grit when “Bob has has t’cuppa tea, lad” (welcome to Yorkshire, the United Kingdom!) and it’s something that I’ll do if I have to (unless I’ve nowhere to go and a quiet, lonely car park). And it seems I’m not alone as Google haven’t certified their self-driving car for wintry conditions yet.
Google are famous for releasing products at the beta stage, that is, they’re not yet ready for public consumption but are instead released for bug testing by those souls brave enough to try it. Gmail was in beta for the longest time and so too is their self-driving car project. Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car unit, said this on the self-driving car going out in the snow, “it turns out in Mountain View, it doesn’t snow. There are a lot of places where we can get an initial deployment, understand the tests, see how people use it and then push the technological boundaries into these more challenging situations.” In other words, the self-driving machine hasn’t been programmed to deal with the snow and whilst it’s on the list, we don’t know where it is on the list.
The self-driving car has generated a lot of interest and polarized opinions across the world. It’s still very much at the early stages of development despite Google having invested a considerable sum of money and time into the experiment. This is understanding and indeed reassuring. The robotic driver needs to be aware of the written rules of the road as well as the unwritten rules. Plus it needs an appreciation or awareness of itself and the surroundings; it needs to anticipate events under complicated scenarios, something that humans find relatively easily whereas computers do not. However, when the self-driving machine is certified for snowy conditions, I’d like to sit as co-driver on a few runs because I’m sure I can learn a thing or two.