IMAGE: Waymo

Who would you trust to drive you in snow and ice, you or a machine?

Waymo, the subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. set up to develop autonomous driving, has announced it has begun road testing its vehicles in real traffic conditions in Detroit, famous for its extreme winters and abundant snow. Waymo has now rolled out such tests to 24 cities (one in the rainy state of Washington, 15 in California, six in Arizona, and one in Texas) in a bid to cover every driving condition.

Snow and ice represent some of the hardest driving conditions: not just because they create slippery road surfaces, but also because of the impact on the sensors autonomous vehicles rely on, which can be totally or partially covered by slush. Road signs will also often be totally or partially hidden, ice or snow on the sensors, very low visibility… I’ve been in Detroit for winter a couple of times, and can say the driving conditions are intimidating. Needless to say, this is all very subjective: I consider myself a good driver in rain — normal for someone who has lived a good part of his life in Galicia, a region in northwestern Spain where the weather is often inclement — and I am surprised by how drivers in Madrid are usually unable to cope with wet conditions, often driving dangerously in my opinion. That said, when I lived in California, heavy rain was considered very dangerous by many of my university colleagues, who would stay at home when it poured, saying they preferred not to drive under such conditions. In Detroit, not knowing how to drive in snow means you’re going to spend a lot of time at home during the winter.

Waymo’s vehicles are already breaking reliability records. Statistically, calculating the accident rate is as simple as taking the number of kilometers traveled by vehicles in autonomous driving mode and dividing them by the number of accidents, and for the moment, autonomous vehicles have had virtually no accidents, and the few they have suffered are due to clumsy human drivers. The question now is to find out what happens when we submit the technology to “torture” conditions, such as driving in snow or ice.

Traditional thinking would suggest that under such circumstances, humans might perform better than a machine. But the evidence so far indicates that this is not the case, and that with proper training, autonomous vehicles can adapt much better than those driven by humans, controlling the steering and traction to better match the circumstances. What happens when we see that even under difficult conditions, it makes more sense for a human to sit back and let the machine do the work? I can certainly say that driving in snow and ice is not my idea of fun. What will happen when these types of autonomous vehicles are available in some cities in a few month’s time, and your partner or your parents tell you that because of the weather you shouldn’t drive but instead hire a self-driving vehicle. Will Waymo’s results from the road tests in Detroit silence the skeptics, or will they continue to insist that when it comes to driving in snow: “leave it to me or my brother-in-law, we’ll show you how it’s done…” :-)

(En español, aquí)