Why Google’s Driverless Cars Should Go to Honolulu Next – The Atlantic

Posted: Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It’s fair criticism. If self-driving cars are to transform society the way so many technologists claim they will, they will eventually have to prove they know what to do in a blizzard—even if knowing what to do means refusing to drive through it. But critics who are pushing Google to begin testing in icy conditions sooner rather than later are unlikely to convince the company to do so before it’s ready. 

“For now, if it’s particularly stormy, our cars automatically pull over and wait until conditions improve (and of course, our test drivers are always available to take over),” wrote Google in a December 2015 report, referring to rainy roadways. “To explore even more challenging environments, we’re beginning to collect data in all sorts of rainy and snowy conditions as we work toward the goal of a self-driving car that will be able to drive come rain, hail, snow or shine!”

There are at least some companies already testing autonomous driving technology in a region known for its inclement weather—though not necessarily on public roads. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s a testing site called Mcity that’s used by Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and others, according to The New York Times.

As the leading and most public-facing company in the driverless car space, Google is under enormous pressure to both get the technology right and to win a massive battle for public opinion. To be successful, Google has to select locations for test driving very, very carefully. “When we think about the technology rolling out over time, we imagine we’re going to find places where the weather is good, where the roads are easy to drive, and the technology might come there first,” said Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving cars project, at a conference in March.

Which brings us back to Honolulu. It never snows there. It rains—more on the windward side of the island than the leeward side—but not substantially more than in Kirkland, Washington, where Google is already testing its vehicles. And there’s ample room for relatively uncomplicated test routes—long highways like H1, and the mostly flat roads flanked by pineapple fields en route to the country. Even downtown Honolulu isn’t as congested or dense as other metro areas. (Navigating tourist-choked Waikiki would probably pose more of a challenge for any driver, computer or human.) And despite perennial complaints about potholes, the upkeep of roads—with mostly clear signage and bright-enough paint on main roadways for a computer sensor to read—is mostly decent. 

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