5 extreme test drives for driverless cars
Driverless cars are at the cutting edge of technological innovation and design. But are they ready for Mother Nature at her most extreme?
There are many obstacles to overcome before humans can build a fully driverless world. Many of these relate to the automation and program within the cars: does a car know when to brake or how to tackle a roundabout? There are some challenges, however, that are more physical, related to the construction and durability of a driverless car and how it deals with extreme conditions.
Waymo’s Death Valley test drive
Waymo, the driverless tech side-arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has recently tested one of its car’s resistance to heat.
The test took place in Death Valley, California, which boasts the planet’s hottest temperatures in recorded history. On July 10 1913, temperatures topped out at an incredible 56.7˚C (134˚F), and summer temperatures average between 31˚C (88˚F) and 46.5˚C (116˚F) – making it one of the most inhospitable inhabited places on Earth to test drive a vehicle.
In a blog, one of Waymo’s thermal engineers, said:
“If you’ve used your cell phone in the bright sun on a hot day you may have experienced it shutting down. Our self-driving system needs to be much more reliable than your typical home electronics. This type of testing allows us to be confident our vehicle can cool itself and continue to operate under the hottest temperatures, even with an engine running at full power and our systems running at full capacity.”
Thankfully, the tests confirmed what lab tests had indicated, that their Chrysler Pacifica “is road-ready for extreme heat”.
The question now, is where else should driverless cars be put to the test to prove that they’re really ready for Mother Nature at her most extreme?
Here are five suggested extreme test drives:
1. Yakutsk, Russia – the coldest place on Earth
More than 250,000 people live in Yakutsk, the coldest city on the planet – and it would seem unfair to expect them to stick to normal cars when the rest of the world is driverless.
The lowest temperature recorded at Yakutsk is -63˚C (-81.4˚F). While this is extreme enough to risk freezing petrol, the driverless cars of the future will probably be electric, and performance of current electric vehicles have shown that they can drive perfectly well in extremely cold temperatures – apart from reducing their range. The range of the Nissan LEAF, for example, is only 20-30 miles less per charge, in sub-sero conditions. Unfortunately, the next biggest town to Yakutsk in same the sub-region of Russia is more than 504 miles (800km) away…
2. Mawsynram, India – the wettest place on Earth
Mawsynram is in a region called Meghalaya, which means ‘land of the clouds’ – and it gets an incredible 11,430mm (450 inches) of rain per year. That’s about 13 times more rainfall than the whole of the UK gets per year.
Most driverless cars read traffic signs and road markings to keep them on track. But during monsoon season in Mawsynram, visibility is poor and roads are more like rivers. Are driverless cars prepared to ‘drive blind’? While drivers may be happy to take a coffee break when the downpour is at its heaviest, or find another route when it’s hard to judge the depth of flooding, will a computer program make the same judgements? Only a test drive can provide the answers.
3. Oklahoma, USA – the windiest (inhabited) place on Earth
Antartica and the Southern Ocean are technically windier than Oklahoma, but the demand for driverless cars in these areas is likely to be low. In contrast, Oklahoma has a population just shy of 4 million.
During a huge tornado outbreak in Oklahoma in May 1999, winds of 302mph were recorded, and a single tornado caused wind damage in a diameter of 4 miles (6.4 km). Of course, these winds could easily reposition your car on the other side of town – but they don’t happen every day. So, as a stormy state, Oklahoma still offers the perfect testing ground.
Driving in high winds makes for a jerky ride. If you’ve driven on a windy day, you’ll be familiar with the quick adjustments you must make to your steering when a gust hits the side of your car. But are driverless cars being programmed with these adjustments? If so, it may be time for a test drive during tornado season. If not, car makers have some work to do.
4. Newfoundland, Canada – the foggiest place on Earth
You may not be in control of your car when driverless vehicles rule the world, but the chances are you’d still like to see where you’re going! So, you might choose to avoid Newfoundland, parts of which get over just 200 foggy days per years.
It could be argued that you simply shouldn’t take a journey, driverless car or not, when visibility is severely reduced. The problem with fog is that you may be able to see one minute but not the next. How would a driverless car react to this? Would its programs assume that there is a problem with the cameras? Or is it possible for them to sense fog – which is basically a cloud on the ground? A clever car should be able to sense the 100% humidity, right? Let’s hope the scientists behind driverless tech have considered this in their plans.
5. Arica, Chile – the driest city on Earth
Waymo has previously tested its vehicles in Phoenix, Arizona to see how they would fare in the desert. But to truly test the effect of dry desert conditions on a state-of-the-art driverless car, a trip to Arica is in order.
This Chilean city receives an average rainfall of less than 0.8mm (0.03in) per year. It sits on the edge of the Atacama Desert, which is known as an ‘absolute desert’ – some parts haven’t had rainfall since records began more than 400 years ago.
Testing driverless cars in Arica will not only help researchers working on autonomous vehicles here on Earth, but elsewhere in the solar system too. Oxbotica, the UK’s pioneering robotics group, have already had their software licensed for a trip to Mars. With driverless technology being used to explore space, it only makes sense to test them in the most extreme conditions Earth has to offer first.