Crappy US Roads Major Roadblock for Self-Driving Cars

Poor lane markings and uneven signage on the three million miles of paved roads in the United States are becoming a serious problem for the development of self-driving cars.

Newsflash: the roads in United States are terrible. Sixty-five percent of US roads are in poor condition, according to the Department of Transportation, and our transportation infrastructure system was recently ranked 12th in the world.

These shoddy roads are becoming a major roadblock for self-driving cars, Reuters reports. Poor lane markings and uneven signage on the three million miles of paved roads in the US are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps.

Reuters points out that cars from “Tesla, Volvo, Mercedes, Audi and others are fielding vehicles that can drive on highways, change lanes and park without human help. But they are easily flummoxed by faded lane markers, damaged or non-compliant signs or lights, and the many quirks of a roadway infrastructure managed by thousands of state and local bureaucracies.”

Part of the problem, Reuters says, is the lack of standards in the US. “In other developed countries, greater standardization of road signs and markings makes it easier for robot cars to navigate. In the U.S., however, traffic lights can be aligned vertically, horizontally or “dog-house” style in two columns. Pavement markings use paint with different degrees of reflectivity - or don’t exist at all.”

“If the lane fades, all hell breaks loose,” Christoph Mertz, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, told Reuters. “But cars have to handle these weird circumstances and have three different ways of doing things in case one fails.”

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Self-driving car engineers are thus forced to spend more time and effort on more sensors, maps and other technology, which will drive up the cost of a self-driving car. For example, Reuters points out, the Velodyne LIDAR system used in Google‘s self-driving cars costs $75,000. However, a company called Quanergy has built a $250 LIDAR system that it says it can get below $100 by 2018.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk even called the issue of faded line markers “crazy,” adding that they confused Tesla’s semi-autonomous cars. Reuters also shared a story about Volvo North American CEO Lex Kerssemakers losing his cool as a Volvo semi-autonomous prototype refused to drive during a press event at the Los Angeles Auto Show. “It can’t find the lane markings!” Kerssemakers griped to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the wheel. “You need to paint the bloody roads here!”

This, of course, raises questions about how self-driving cars will be able to handle different obstacles on the roads, such as sandbags, which were partly to blame for Google’s self-driving car hitting a public transit bus in California.  Here’s how the accident happened:

“A Google Lexus-model autonomous vehicle (“Google AV”) was traveling in autonomous mode eastbound on El Camino Real in Mountain View in the far right-hand lane approaching the Castro St. intersection. As the Google AV approached the intersection, it signaled its intent to make a right turn on red onto Castro St. The Google AV then moved to the right-hand side of the lane to pass traffic in the same lane that was stopped at the intersection and proceeding straight.

“However, the Google AV had to come to a stop and go around sandbags positioned around a storm drain that were blocking its path. When the light turned green, traffic in the lane continued past the Google AV. After a few cars had passed, the Google AV began to proceed back into the center of the lane and pass the sandbags. A public transit bus was approaching from behind.

“The Google AV test driver saw the bus approaching the left side mirror but believed the bus would stop or slow to allow the Google AV to continue. Approximately three seconds later, as the Google AV was reentering the center of the lane it made contact with the side of the bus. The Google AV was operating in autonomous mode and traveling less than 2 mph, and the bus was traveling at about 15 mph at the time of contact.”

Nobody was hurt during the accident, which was the first caused by a Google self-driving car while in autonomous mode. Prior to this, Google’s self-driving cars had driven more than 1.3 million miles since 2009 and were involved in 17 crashes caused by human error.

There are many challenges that stand in the way of self-driving cars becoming mainstream in the US, but it appears infrastructure is the most daunting.

About the Author

Steve Crowe · Steve Crowe is managing editor of Robotics Trends. Steve has been writing about technology since 2008. He lives in Belchertown, MA with his wife and daughter.
Contact Steve Crowe:  ·  View More by Steve Crowe.


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