Can Autonomous Cars Weather the Weather?

By: Bridget Clerkin March 27, 2018
The sun could be a formidable enemy of the self-driving cars of the future.
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Too much sun is bad for anyone: it could leave you sunburnt, poisoned, or—if you’re an autonomous car—utterly blind.

Solar flares could cause serious flare-ups for integral self-driving technology, leaving the vehicles unable to navigate themselves for extended periods of time, according to experts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

And the inclement space weather isn’t the only climate-related phenomenon the cars will have to contend with.

At risk in the battle between man and nature is the ability for the autonomous autos to access the suite of systems used to relay geographical routes, due to issues ranging from interrupted satellite communications to simple camera lens limitations. Engineers have ensured the vehicles will have enough options to get around town regardless of the forecast—both terrestrial and celestial—but will the cars be able to deliver the goods rain or shine, or will they prove themselves to be fair-weather rides?

Flared Out

Solar flares can disrupt and destroy systems vital to self-driving cars, such as navigation.

The latest problem plaguing the idea of self-guided transportation is truly universal: possible disruptions caused by the star that keeps the solar system turning.

The enormous ball of burning gas has lasted billions of years, but like all things powered by nuclear fusion, it’s prone to occasional stability lapses. The products of those bursts of extra energy are solar flares, which filter through space, sending ripple effects across the universe.

When the waves of highly-charged particles reach Earth, they can wreak havoc on the planet’s magnetosphere, which influences geomagnetic activity and radiation levels. Organic life is protected from the effects by the atmosphere, but machines are exceptionally sensitive to the magnetic touch.

The strongest of solar flares can—and have—downed international power grids and killed radio communication. Up in space, satellites are especially susceptible to the radiation, and the link between the floating computers and their receptors down below is almost always cut off.

The effects are usually rectified within a day, but all told, they would do enough to keep autonomous cars off the roads, or at least render them unable to navigate.

Still, the problem represents a remote issue—for now. The sun goes through energy cycles, and is widely expected to remain relatively docile for at least 11 years. (The latest peak of radioactivity within the star occurred in 2014, just as autonomous cars were getting their earnest start.)

And when the solar storms come, the scientific community will be ready for them: three years ago, the U.S. government launched a satellite deep into space—one million miles off the ground—to keep an eye out for such pending problems.

The celestial barometer can give warning up to an hour before a flare hits and has been used to reroute flights and prepare utility companies for potential coming complications.

With the advent of autonomous cars, the technology will likely be more in demand than ever—but it won’t be able to shield the vehicles from more Earth-bound weather events.

Iced Out

It seems any weather extreme can have an effect on self-driving technology.

Snow has long proved a tricky adversary for autonomous cars, thanks to its blinding propensity to obscure lines, signs, and other roadway markers—the same issues flesh and blood drivers face when braving the element.

While humans can typically figure out their approximate location and trajectory in snowy or rainy conditions with the help of context clues, self-driving cars don’t have the same environmental advantage.

While humans can typically figure out their approximate location and trajectory with the help of context clues, self-driving cars don’t have the same environmental advantage, as the vehicles rely much more heavily on preconceived maps of the road. (And if snow—or rain—is still falling, the drive could be doubly dangerous, as the suite of cameras robocars rely upon would be unable to “see” their surroundings well, or at all.)

Several companies are trying to solve this problem by giving autonomous cars access to hyper-detailed maps, allowing something as small as a stop sign to trigger an idea of where the car is both geographically and in relation to known curbs and lanes.

The solution seems to work, but it raises other concerns. Such detailed mapping software has been predicted to considerably raise the environmental impact of self-driving cars, which could become an issue where heavy snowfall is the norm.

Maps also hog data processing systems in the vehicles, leaving the computers directing the autos to face the choice between focusing on location or other functions, such as spotting unexpected objects on the road.

Optioned Out?

The cars will have enough redundancy to keep on trucking, come rain, hail, sleet, or snow, autonomous engineers say.

Indeed, the vehicles are already fitted with GPS systems as well as a number of cameras, radar, and LiDAR, and they may soon have the ability to see even better than their human occupants.

At the very most, the autonomous autos will be programed to pull over until weather events become more favorable, most companies say.

Still, so far, the vehicles’ mettle has yet to be truly tested, with a majority of self-driving experiments taking place in paradisiacal California and arid Arizona. And extreme weather is on the rise as the planet’s temperature only rises in tandem.

Altogether, the changes will make for a brave new world—it just may be one future passengers are forced to watch from the side of the road for a while.

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