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How Do Self-Driving Cars Perform in Ice and Snow?

Published on Feb 26, 2019 by Thomas Law Offices.

As autonomous vehicles and their continued development continue to make headlines, we need to question how they will perform in poor weather conditions, like ice and snow. As the driver of a vehicle, you know it can be challenging and even dangerous to drive in inclement weather.

While some drivers are reckless in poor weather, the majority of drivers use their heads and proceed with caution when snow and ice are accumulating on the roadways. This begs the question as to whether self-driving cars have their own form of common sense when it comes to slippery and hazardous road conditions.

How Autonomous Vehicles Detect Danger

A self-driving car needs to be able to perform three actions in order to replace a human driver. Those actions include perceiving, computing, and controlling. While a person has their brain, eyes, ears, and hands and feet, an autonomous car has radars, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, cameras, and computer and control electronics.

The camera, LIDAR, and radar act like a person’s eyes and ears. They can determine the location of people and objects in relation to the vehicle. Cameras are often installed on the roof and in other places around the car so things can be seen from every angle. While cameras are able to identify shapes and colors, they are not useful when it comes to finding the distance to an object. This is where the LIDAR comes in. It is a device with a constantly rotating laser beam that sends invisible light pulses to discriminate the shapes and locations of surrounding objects. Finally, the radars are used to detect moving objects.

The brain of a self-driving car is a powerful computer. It often sits in the truck and it controls how the car operates. It uses a GPS to get a rough idea of the route, and it must follow that route to get to the set destination. This, however, is not enough to change lanes, stop at traffic lights, or navigate along a busy street. At this point, the cars “hands” and “feet,” or the control electronics, take over. The control electronics process what the other technology in the car has sent, and make decisions to move forward, backward, turn, and stop.

With the number of autonomous vehicles in accidents involving other vehicles and people, it’s clear to see that the technology might not be ready to handle all traffic situations. This includes driving in inclement weather – where it’s crucial to understand how a vehicle performs in the snow and how weather conditions change as the landscape changes.

Losing Vehicular Control on Ice and Snow

While drivers can take steps to prepare for a driving involving snowy conditions, operating a vehicle through the snow can be challenging. Drivers need to reduce their speed significantly, keep both hands on the wheel, ignore any possible distractions, and focus on how their vehicle operates in poor conditions. After driving a vehicle for some time, most drivers have an idea of how their car drives in the snow, so they can take measure to ensure they get to their destination safely. When ice is involved, however, even the most experienced driver could lose control.

In a situation where a driver no longer has control over the direction their vehicle is going, the person knows to stay calm, shift into neutral, steer into the skid, and avoid accelerating or decelerating too quickly. Taking those steps can help to prevent a crash that could result in property damaged, injuries, or fatalities depending on the severity.

The question remains as to whether or not self-driving vehicles are technologically advanced enough to perform well in ice and snow. At this time, no major company producing self-driving cars has claimed that their cars have the ability to drive through snowy conditions. Winter weather could be problematic for cameras and sensors, especially in the event of a snow squall. When snow is falling, the lasers could potentially mistake the snowflakes for more solid objects and drive incorrectly. Snow that covers objects could also present a problem, as it changes the landscape and environment that car expects to be in.

One of the benefits an autonomous car has in the event of a snowstorm, however, is its ability to already know the precise locations of lane marking or crosswalks, even when they’re not visible, because of the internal map. If the sensors are not bothered by falling snow, the vehicle may also be able to detect objects in low visibility.

Technologically, self-driving vehicles need to advance before they are considered safe to drive in ice and snow, to reduce the risk of accidents. At Thomas Law Offices, we understand how traumatic a car accident can be – whether it happens with another driver or an autonomous vehicle.

Taking legal action against the party you believed caused your accident can be complicated, especially when you’re dealing with insurance companies. In order to ease the process, our attorneys are here to explain your rights and help you file your claim. To learn more about your options, contact us today.

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Tad Thomas - Trial Lawyer

Tad Thomas

Managing Partner

Tad Thomas has dedicated his practice to representing plaintiffs in various types of civil litigation, including personal injury, business litigation, class actions, and multi-district litigation.

After graduating with his law degree in 2000 from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, Mr. Thomas immediately opened his own private practice and began representing injury victims.

In 2011, Thomas Law Offices was established in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the past decade, Mr. Thomas has expanded his firm and now has offices in three additional locations: Cincinnati, Ohio, Columbia, Missouri, and Chicago, Illinois. He is also a frequent lecturer on topics like trial skills and ethics and technology.

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