Autonomous Cars Befuddled by Rainy Weather

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It’s challenging driving in the rain or snow. Not only do the roads get slick, but it can be hard to see. That’s why we have headlights and windshield wipers. Despite the notion autonomous cars will be able to handle bad weather better than humans, it still causes all sorts of trouble for technology.

Anyone who has driven a car with even the most basic autonomous technology has probably experienced the challenges of bad weather firsthand. Sensors are easily blocked by ice and snow. Cars spend a good part of the winter months telling us things are temporarily not working. Research out of Michigan State University shows even a little bit of rain can mess up autonomous technology.

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It doesn’t have to be a blizzard or a torrential downpour, either. Even a light mist of rain in enough to confuse the algorithms used by autonomous vehicles to navigate roadways.

Hayder Radha, professor of electrical and computer engineering, oversaw the study, which focused on how camera sensors functioned in poor weather. There are radar and lidar systems, which detect objects, but cameras are still integral to self-driving cars.

While we’ve all experienced a snow-covered sensor that can easily be fixed by cleaning away the dirt or ice, the study found it wasn’t the cameras, but the algorithms that interpret what the cameras see.

“Once you throw in a few drops of rain, they get confused. It’s like putting eyedrops in your eye and expecting to see right away,” he said.

The study looked at a variety of situations with varying amounts of wind, rain, and even raindrop sizes. It found up to 20 percent of objects were missed even in a light rain. Up the intensity of the storm and the numbers gradually increase to as much as 40 percent.

The solution to the problem is complicated and expands on the kind of testing that needs to be done with autonomous vehicles. It’s not just a matter of navigating the roads, but of doing so even in conditions that are challenging.

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What a self-driving car experiences in sunny California will be entirely different from what is experienced by cars in the northeast or the south. Even outside temperatures that are extremely hot or cold tax these systems.

We still have a way to go before fully self-driving vehicles take to the roads. Turns out it’s not just humans who aren’t as good at driving when there’s snow on the road.