By on October 26, 2017


There’s something we don’t often hear about when companies discuss the glory of the autonomous car: the lack of functionality of specific hardware during inclement weather.

Camera systems can be rendered ineffective when covered with ice and snow cover of an inch or more can easily obscure lane markings, leaving self-driving cars at a serious disadvantage. LiDAR, which operates using light beams, can be severely thrown in fog or whiteout conditions. Even if a blizzard doesn’t knock out the vehicle’s sensor array, its computer will still have to know how to mitigate slippery road surfaces.

Whether you’re human or machine, winter driving is extremely taxing. But technology companies hoping to build a self-driving car eventually have to move into snowy regions to advance testing. Some of the bigger automakers already have. Ford, for example, has begun extensive regional mapping — hoping to give cars handicapped by poor visibility a leg up.

Waymo has also decided it’s time to throw on a parka and winter tires. It’s heading to Michigan to start cold-weather testing next week. 


While the Google spinoff has undertaken snow trails before, the majority of its testing has been in places like Texas, Arizona, Nevada, or California. However, it now plans to unleash its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids on Michigan’s icy public roads en masse.

“For human drivers, the mix of winter conditions affects how well you can see and the way your vehicle handles the road. The same is true for self-driving cars,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik in a recent blog post. “Our ultimate goal is for our fully self-driving cars to operate safely and smoothly in all kinds of environments.”

Waymo already has a home in Michigan. It opened a self-driving technology development center in Novi over a year ago. Krafcik says it will be essential in fielding a larger fleet over the winter months.

The plan mimics Ford’s solution by extensively mapping the areas test vehicles will operate in. However, Waymo seems more keen about collecting data on how its hardware performs in adverse conditions. The company has been relatively obsessive with safety and remaining transparent in its actions, so Krafcik assures us that all test vehicles will have a human driver behind the wheel as a precaution.

Governor Rick Snyder expressed his pleasure over the company’s decision to begin winter trials in Michigan via a written statement.

“Waymo clearly shares our concern for and commitment to safety for Michigan residents,” Snyder said. “I’m proud that Waymo chose Michigan to expand its testing as they take their self-driving vehicles into the next phase. Michiganders certainly understand the challenges of driving in the winter and I look forward to seeing how Waymo’s engineers can address that in these next-generation vehicles.”

[Images: Waymo]

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8 Comments on “Self-driving Cars Head to Michigan For Winter Testing...”

  • avatar

    “There’s something we don’t often hear about when companies discuss the glory of the autonomous car: the lack of functionality of specific hardware during inclement weather.”

    What do you mean? There’s no winter in San Francisco and anyone who’s of any importance lives in San Francisco. Now back to my $14 avocado toast sandwich….

  • avatar

    Humans usually manage to keep cars on the road in fog, and on snow and gravel. Consider the thought processes we use to do so. Such as evaluating what we can see. I don’t see why autonomous cars can’t do those things just as well.

    In addition the cars will have advantages such as better detection of loss of traction, onboard detailed mapping, communication with other vehicles to relay positioning and road conditions, radar etc., and no tendency to speed despite the conditions.

  • avatar

    get a horse.

  • avatar

    That last picture, the one with the “self-driving car”, appears to have some form of snow chains on the tires…

    …does it come with a robot to put the chains on and take them off, as needed?

    (of course, it won’t.)

    This is a snowy folly. A (snowy) bridge too far. It’s pretentious to, at this point in “self-driving cars”, to do this at this point. It’s at least, partly, a publicity stunt, and only that much at best.

    • 0 avatar

      Not sure what your point is regarding mounting chains. They wouldn’t come with a robot to put winter tires on either.

      Do you think an autonomous car, using light sensors, traffic reports, weather reports and reports from other cars, be unable to sense snow on the road? Would it be difficult to program the car so that the car would slow down in such conditions, or even pull over and shut down if it’s bad enough?

      Would it be unable to follow tire tracks in the snow and visual cues to determine where the road is? Just like people do? But it would also have detailed maps for reference.

      Given how so many people drive in snow it’s hard to imagine an autonomous car doing worse. It’s easy to imagine it doing much better. I can also imagine autonomous cars not creating the massive traffic snarls that happen in sudden severe weather.

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