By on February 23, 2018

car wash

We’ve been cautiously optimistic about the progress of autonomous driving. The miraculous technology is there, but implementing it effectively is an arduous task of the highest order. A prime example of this is how easy it is to “blind” a self-driving vehicle’s sensors.

TTAC’s staff has had its share of minor misadventures with semi-autonomous driving aids, be it during encounters with thick fog or heavy snow, but truly self-driving cars have even more sensitive equipment on board — and all of it needs to function properly.

That makes even the simple task of washing a self-driving car far more complicated than one might expect, as anything other than meticulous hand washing a big no-no. Automated car washes could potentially dislodge expensive sensors, scratch them up, or leave behind soap residue or water spots that would affect a camera’s ability to see. 

According to CNN, automakers and tech firms have come up with a myriad of solutions to this problem — though a man with a rag and some water appears to be the most popular. Toyota, Aptiv, Drive.AI, May Mobility, and Uber have all said they use rubbing alcohol, water, or glass cleaner to manually wash the sensors, before carefully finishing the job with a microfiber cloth.

Avis, which has been tasked to tidy up Waymo’s autonomous fleet, elaborated on the process further. “There are special processes that definitely require a lot more care and focus, and you have to clean [the vans] quite often,” Avis chief innovation officer Arthur Orduña told CNN in an interview. “We give them the premium level of service that I don’t think any vehicle globally is getting.”

While it’s more than just a little ironic that these automated vehicles require gobs of attention and pampering from human hands just to function correctly, some companies are working on a way around it. General Motors’ Cruise has said it will design and implement sensor-cleaning equipment in production vehicles.

SEEVA Technologies, a small startup that seems to have a better handle on this issue than some established manufacturers, is also developing equipment to help alleviate the problem. It currently has a unit that heats washer fluid for windshields, but hopes to adapt it for sensor cleaning. Still, Seeva CEO Diane Lansinger believes something entirely new is needed to treat the multitude of sensors required for autonomous driving.

“For self-driving technology to scale, we can’t have engineers paid $150,000 a year, running around the vehicles and wiping them down,” she said. “It’s going to be quite awhile before we get away from the manual care.”

That’s a pretty solid assessment. Considering the majority of drivers have to cope with seasonal conditions that leave snow and/or road salt caked onto their vehicles after a few minutes of driving, something will need to be designed to help clean up those trouble areas while on the move. Otherwise, automakers will have spent billions of dollars developing a technology that doesn’t work without obsessive levels of careful maintenance.

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31 Comments on “Automated Cars Are Not Able to Use the Automated Car Wash...”


  • avatar
    Sub-600

    I live in the snow and road salt capital of America and have never had a sensor problem. Rear backup, blind spot, forward collision, etc. I had to get out and clean off a camera lens once, only because it bothered me, it wasn’t a necessity. I’m sure that auto pods have more sensitive sensors and more of them, but it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. I hope it is though, because I don’t like auto pods.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Have had the radar sensor for my adaptive cruise glop up with slush a few times, and have occasionally had to clean the lens of the backup camera in winter.

      Weirdest one was just this week: a water droplet managed to dry right on the LaneWatch camera on the right mirror of the car, so it was weird seeing a hazy picture on the screen when hitting my right blinker!

  • avatar
    Fred

    Does this mean that the dealer will become the only approved way to wash your car?

  • avatar
    SilverCoupe

    There you go, this will provide jobs for all those laid off due to the self-driving vehicles. Problem solved!

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Nothing disables the sensors, lights and windows on my car quite like washing it. Especially the one that looks out through the wiped portion of the windshield.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    Self-diagnostic and self-cleaning technology will be essential for these cars to work. At least the diagnostic part, so the car can say “I can’t drive anywhere until you clean off this dirty lens” and then show a picture on the dash of exactly which lens it’s talking about.

  • avatar
    WheelMcCoy

    Robot vs Robot. Can’t we all get along?

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Well cover me with moss and call me Pete!

    No sale then. I will hand wax a few times a year but most of the time I’m too lazy to hand wash – sorry. Especially when there’s a place in town where I can get an automated wash and a towel dry for $12. (Yes I tip the gentlemen – I’m not including that in the price.)

  • avatar
    RHD

    Building cars with no driver controls is unfathomably stupid.
    How could a mechanic pull it into the repair bay and center it just right on the lift? How could you park it in just the right spot in a crowded dirt field parking area? The stupid thing is supposed to be a better driver than a human, but it can’t read your mind.
    How about pulling it off the road to avoid accident debris? And how would it be maneuvered after a fender-bender? Or parked just so in your garage just inches from a stack of boxes and a bicycle?
    By solving a problem that does not exist, we’re creating problems that require more work than necessary on our part. We’ll have to out-think the computers.

    • 0 avatar
      sooperedd

      ….or parking and backing up with a trailer?
      Getting out of the way of an ambulance or fire truck?
      Driving faster when you have a legitimate emergency?
      Off road driving?

      Self-driving cars will NEVER work. I just don’t get the obsession with them by the media.

    • 0 avatar
      brandloyalty

      My Roomba vacuum cleaner finds and parks itself on its charging base. Smarter than any car could possibly be.

      • 0 avatar
        Steve65

        You can’t seriously think a roomba faces anything remotely as complex as navigating with inch precision in a completely uncontrolled environment.

      • 0 avatar
        pdq

        My cleaning lady shows up every other Saturday. She drives to my house in her car, parks it herself, lets herself in with the key, she cleans the bathroom, the kitchen (including doing dirty dishes if there are any AND cleaning out the fridge), the living room, dining room and bedrooms, she does some windows, she dusts, she vacuums and mops the wood floors, takes out the trash, then puts her cleaning rags in the washing machine and starts it, she leaves me a note regarding any supplies I need to buy that are running low, she takes her money, lets herself out and locks the door behind her before driving off in her own car.

        You can keep your primitive Roomba. It’s an expensive gimmick that doesn’t do a whole lot.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    Can’t run it through a car wash? People who care so little about the art of driving aren’t about to pamper it with hand washes.

  • avatar
    Mingo the dingo

    I can’t believe a CEO made this statement,

    “For self-driving technology to scale, we can’t have engineers paid $150,000 a year, running around the vehicles and wiping them down,” she said.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      @mingo: Actually, we’re getting paid more than $150k.

      https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/16/pittsburghs-self-driving-car-boom-means-200000-pay-packages-for-robotics-grads.html

      https://www.forbes.com/sites/alanohnsman/2017/03/27/autonomous-car-race-creates-400k-engineering-jobs-for-top-silicon-valley-talent/#3d0107aa14a3

    • 0 avatar
      OneAlpha

      One of my friends is a programmer, and has been into computers for 30 years.

      I once asked him if computer software is as complex as it is because it has to be to do its job, or because the cynics are right and the programmers make it complicated and opaque to ensure that they’ll always have high-paying jobs.

      He said it was about 90-10: Mostly unfathomable because it needs to be, but yeah, the cynics ARE partially right.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    Again, these aren’t really autonomous cars.

    A truly autonomous car would be a synthetic animal, fully equipped with sensors to perceive the environment around it and enough “brain” power to make informed decisions about which way to go.

    There are enough odd little situations in driving to make autonomous cars, as a concept, unfeasible.

    For example, what happens if you’re stuck in traffic and need to take a dump RIGHT NOW, there’s a Burger King across the street and fixing the problem’s going to take an illegal left, driving across the median, lots of tire squeal and a few close shaves with oncoming traffic.

    And that sequence is the least-bad way to fix the problem.

    I’ve been there, and an autonomous car programmed to obey every piddling little law won’t do what I need it to do to solve my problem.

    • 0 avatar
      statikboy

      While I’d rather sh!t myself than risk “a few close shaves with oncoming traffic” and the property damage, injury or loss of life that could result, especially since said incident would still end in my sh!tting myself, I do appreciate the truth of the sentiment. Autonomous cars will work with 90% of driving, and the 10% they won’t work with they REALLY won’t work with.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      To say nothing of a situation where a passenger is having a true medical emergency! If the route the car takes is posted at 25 or 30mph all the way, might as well just call the funeral home, as you might be able to walk to the hospital quicker!

      Hopefully, the GoogleAmazonBezosAllYourDestinationsAreBelongToUs pods, while sharing the road with human drivers, will be programmed to yield the left lane, but somehow, I seriously doubt it!

      • 0 avatar
        kkt

        I hope there’s an emergency call function in the autonomous car that calls 911 asking for ambulance and pulls over at the safest location.

        I see a lot of driver assistance functions that could be useful or annoying, however driving is too uncontrolled for an autonomous car to be even close to practical.

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    Exactly my point!

    Autonomous cars are great at dealing with routine operations, but are just-this-side-of-useless for emergencies that require creative problem-solving.

    A vehicle that can’t handle unforeseen scenarios might as well have a set of rails under it.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Auto-pods are just another example of liberal nanny state knee-jerk reactions. The nanny state seeks the lowest common denominator. People are cooking meth? Harass everyone who wants to buy Sudafed, A psychopath goes on a rampage? Take guns away from responsible citizens. People get hooked on prescription pain killers? Make it harder for people with chronic pain to get them. People (whom the state has already licensed) lack the requisite skill and common sense to operate a motor vehicle correctly? Build auto-pods so nobody can drive. Liberalism: Let’s find a cure. Btw, what do car manufacturers plan to do when the auto-pods arrive? A Mercedes E Class Pod will offer nothing that a Kia Rio Pod will as far as drivability is concerned. You are going to sit like a bump on a log in your pod.

    • 0 avatar
      maclifer

      It is stunning how people get licensed but truly don’t know how to drive – or don’t want to learn. Those are perfect pod people however the perfect pod seems a long way off. If there’s even such a thing. But for the rest of us who enjoy driving, love cars and want to keep learning we’re pretty much being smacked down with the ignorant.

      Whatever happened to people wanting to take charge and more responsibility instead of abdicating it to those whose intentions are nebulous at best?


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