Minnesota Winters Are Proving to be Difficult for Autonomous Cars

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【Summary】Inclement weather, especially in colder winter months, is proving to be tricky for driverless vehicles.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Feb 05, 2018 9:00 AM PT
Minnesota Winters Are Proving to be Difficult for Autonomous Cars

Large strides are being made in the autonomous scene on a daily basis, but there are still some environments that autonomous vehicles struggle in. While automakers and tech companies have worked out the majority of problems driverless cars have when it rains, snow is still an issue with the machines. As an article by the Minn Post, points out, there are some glaring flaws when it comes to autonomous vehicles operating in wintery conditions. 

Minnie Has A Lot More To Learn

According to the outlet, the Minnesota Department of Transportation showcased a self-driving shuttle bus named "Minnie" that's operating on roads in Albertville, Minn. A roadside sign reading, "Autonomous Vehicle Testing Area 15 mpg" clearly reveals where the bus is operating, but during a wintery mix, Minnie operated just like a human driver would, but came to halts for no apparent reason a few times. 

"It was probably snow blowing across the road," states Minn Post, citing a demonstrator. 

As anyone that's visited the Midwest during winter can attest to, Minnesota has harsh winters. The majority of automakers and tech companies are currently testing their vehicles in Silicon Valley, where the climate is much more agreeable. While California is the ideal place for companies to test their autonomous vehicles in, the state's climate doesn't represent the climate the majority of other states in the U.S. face. 

Why Testing In Minnesota Is Important

Minnesota transportation officials believe it's important to test autonomous vehicles in the state during its harsh winter months to see if the vehicles can really cope with what the state has to offer. As Minn Post points out, officials needs to see if the machines can operate when snow – and lots of the frigid white stuff – is prevalent and how the self-driving cars will cope with black ice. 

Another important detail of Midwestern winters deals with the salt they use to keep ice at bay. Unlike mixtures other states use, salt sticks to vehicles like glue and results in corrosion. With autonomous vehicles being fitted with numerous cameras, sensors, and radar equipment on the exterior of the car, Minnesota wants to see how a healthy slathering of salt affects the systems. 

Millie is manufactured by French company EasyMile, which, as Minn Post points out, has never tested an autonomous vehicle in Wintery conditions like Minnesota's. Over the next few months, the state's transportation department will see how the autonomous shuttle deals with the harsh Winter and send data back to the EasyMile to help the company make the vehicle better. 

"One of the reasons we do this is because…as the state of Minnesota, we don't want Florida, California, Arizona, Nevada telling the feds this is how it should be because here, it's completely different," said Michael Kronzer, a projector manager for MnDOT's Autonomous Shuttle Bus Pilot Project. 

Why Snow Is So Tricky

Autonomous vehicles are fitted with all sorts of technology on the outside that helps them see through various conditions and locate where road lines are. Unfortunately, a layer of snow can cover any road markings that a driverless car could use. In addition to the snow on the ground, LiDAR can also be fooled by falling snow. 

"Things that are reflective to infrared laser light will bounce the signal back," said Greg McGuire, the director of the Mcity lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Snow is a good reflector, it (reflects) almost all the light that strikes it, infrared or not, so it's a very good reflector of LiDAR." 

The only way to see if autonomous vehicles can deal with Wintery conditions that are faced by half of the United States every year is through testing, which is exactly what Minnesota and EasyMile hope to do with Minnie. There's still a lot of Winter left for states in the Midwest, so the state and the company have a lot of time to perfect their autonomous shuttle. 

via: Minn Post

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