Home How will self-driving cars handle the snow?

How will self-driving cars handle the snow?

Over 70 percent of the nation’s roads are located in snowy regions that receive more than five inches of average snowfall each year. According to the Federal Highway Administration, over 70% of the United States population also live in those areas.

Suffice to say, driverless vehicles won’t matter one bit to Americans unless the cars can drive well in snowy weather. No one is likely to use a “fair weather” driverless car that must be taken off the road during the winter months.

See also: Uber told to pull over self-driving fleet by California DMV

In recent years, we’ve heard about how storms and even snowflakes can challenge self-driving cars. However, technology is advancing and engineers are finding solutions that will allow driverless cars to operate safely in inclement weather.

What we know about the tech now

In the winter, snow and ice reduce pavement friction and decrease visibility on the roads. On average, over 1300 people are killed and more than 116,000 people are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy or icy pavement annually.

Self-driving cars have the opportunity to save a lot of these lives, but only if they are capable of driving in snow better than we can. Driverless vehicles will face many of the same challenges that human drivers face in the winter: Slowing, turning and stopping the vehicle on icy streets will still be treacherous as snow tires and all-wheel drive can only prevent so much. Skids and spinouts will likely still occur.

Furthermore, the snow and ice that gathers on driverless car sensors could create additional threats, as those sensors help the car see. While motorists also have to worry about visibility during storms, we don’t have to worry about snow or ice gathering in our eyes—we only need good windshield wipers. With automated vehicles, snow can cover up radar, camera and lidar sensors all at once, rendering them useless and leaving the car’s computerized eyes blind. Fortunately, there are solutions available that will help automated vehicles handle winter weather and deal with these challenges.

How driverless car tech will combat snow

How will automated vehicles learn to drive in snow as well as humans can? Driving safely in wintry conditions often comes with experience. A new driver typically can’t drive as confidently in the snow compared to a driver who has years of experience with skids and spinouts in inclement weather. Technology will help solve this problem. While none of these self-driving car sensors are safe enough to use alone in the snow, they provide accuracy when operated together. Here are the four types of tech that will allow driverless cars to move safely on snowy streets.

  • 3D Maps are used in self-driving cars so that the vehicles are aware of where the roads are located and how to operate safely on them. Many driverless car manufacturers use precise mapping techniques, that include details such as the positioning of trees, signs, lane lines and curbs. The more a vehicle knows about the area, the more it can focus its sensors on detecting real-time obstacles like other cars or pedestrians. These 3D maps are helpful in fair weather, but they also have a unique advantage in the snow when used in conjunction with LiDAR technology.
  • LIDAR technology works by using light beam detection to detect obstacles. The technology is very accurate and can see raindrops, snowflakes, trees and street signs. In snowy weather, LiDAR works with 3D mapping and compares the map from a clear day with that of the current road conditions. For example, if the street is covered in snow, the LiDAR scanner can still determine where the road’s lane lines are located. By using light beam detection, the car determines its distance from a visible set object—a stop sign or building—and then calculates where the covered lane lines are based on that measurement. Ford implemented this technology into their self-driving cars and other manufacturers will likely use it as well. Additionally, 3D mapping and LiDAR technology are able to determine whether snowflakes or raindrops are obstacles or not. When a laser goes through rain or snow, it may originally believe the drops of precipitation are road obstacles. However, with an algorithm, the car can check for the obstacle’s persistency. The laser will not hit the same raindrop or snowflake twice, and the vehicle is able to rule them out as road obstructions.
  • Radar technology senses objects by emitting electromagnetic waves. It is not affected by snow or rain as much as LiDAR is because it does not involve light reflection. Radar can still detect moving vehicles, buildings and pedestrians in inclement weather which will help automated cars drive safely. However, many manufacturers are placing the radar sensors behind the windshield so that the wipers can protect them from snow or rain. If the sensors are outside the vehicle, they may become iced over and will no longer work.
  • Cameras on self-driving cars act as extra support to detect obstacles on the road. Manufacturers may place these cameras behind the windshield wipers or develop defrost mechanisms so that visibility remains clear even in the winter. Multiple sensors will help mitigate the danger as if one sensor becomes covered by snow or ice, the other sensors can compensate for it. The cameras will work alongside the mapping algorithms, lidar and radar to provide safety. Some manufacturers are taking the need for extra sensors a step further; Mercedes-Benz offers a car with 23 sensors that detect guardrails, oncoming traffic and trees so that the vehicle can travel without lane lines.

A lot of the tech is still up in the air

There are many challenges that driverless cars still need to face before they’ll be able to operate in all types of weather. While technology is advancing, some factors about how driverless cars will operate in winter still remain unknown. Black ice and slippery side streets will remain a problem for automated cars, and snow tires will likely still be a necessity.

While human operators often make decisions about whether it is safe to drive inclement weather, it is unclear how driverless cars will make that rather cognitive choice. If a passenger gets into the car to leave the house, will the vehicle say, “I can’t drive you there because the conditions are unsafe?” If there is a snow squall during travel, what will the car decide to do?

Auto insurance will be especially important for self-driving vehicles during the winter months. As advanced as technology gets, ice will still be ice—skids, spinouts and rear-end collisions will likely still occur on the roads. Sensors that do get blocked by ice or snow will need extra protection and the vehicles will need to plan ahead for dangerous weather.

Furthermore, will the vehicles be equipped with the technology that currently helps out human drivers? Anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control have served humans well, but some of that software may not yet be available for driverless cars as the tech is sometimes made by third-party suppliers. So, while self-driving car technology is getting better at handling snow, it’s clear that we are still a long way off. In other words, don’t expect a driverless car to drive you through a blizzard anytime soon.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Get the biggest tech headlines of the day delivered to your inbox

    By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe anytime.

    Tech News

    Explore the latest in tech with our Tech News. We cut through the noise for concise, relevant updates, keeping you informed about the rapidly evolving tech landscape with curated content that separates signal from noise.

    In-Depth Tech Stories

    Explore tech impact in In-Depth Stories. Narrative data journalism offers comprehensive analyses, revealing stories behind data. Understand industry trends for a deeper perspective on tech's intricate relationships with society.

    Expert Reviews

    Empower decisions with Expert Reviews, merging industry expertise and insightful analysis. Delve into tech intricacies, get the best deals, and stay ahead with our trustworthy guide to navigating the ever-changing tech market.