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Roundabouts and potholes could put the brakes on driverless cars in Britain

Joseph Archer
Broken streets makes it difficult for the cars to calculate simple decisions and to know where they are - 2011 Getty Images

Roundabouts and potholes are hampering the UK Government's bid for Britain to be a world leader in driverless cars, according to a start-up developing the technology.

The crumbling conditions and quirks of the British road system are proving to be a roadblock for autonomous vehicle (AV) companies, according to a senior technician at FiveAI.

“One thing that would definitely speed up autonomous cars getting onto the roads would be having more money spent on fixing potholes," said John Lusty, FiveAI’s new head of simulations who left his job at Facebook to join the start-up.

“I could well imagine a situation where you have people that are operating or selling autonomous cars coming in and fixing roads themselves.”

The start-up, founded in 2016, has been trying to grapple with the issue and even dedicated a whole team just to deal with the “roundabout problem”.

Mr Lusty said broken streets make it near impossible for the cars to calculate simple decisions and to know where they are. For example, potholes full of rainwater, an autonomous car will be confused because it will see the reflection of the sky in the puddle.

FiveAI are recreating parts of the British countryside in simulations so to train AV cars for rural roads. Credit: FiveAI/FiveAI

He said: “The poor condition of our roads is something that makes it harder, because one of the key things that the cars use to make decisions are the road markings.

“So if you had a crucial part of the road markings worn away, the car does not know what is road and what is not road. It doesn't know what is its lane or someone else’s lane. I would imagine the situation in the future, where one of the best ways to expand the driverless vehicle network would be to do things like fixing potholes or so before replacing street signs.”

Despite the government plowing more than £120m of funding into driverless vehicle projects, overcoming these issues could set the technology back in the UK.

Although the company has hired developers and coders who worked on GTA, Fortnite and the Star Wars films, they are struggling to program car AI to effectively navigate roundabouts and cope with potholes. 

FiveAI have had to put potholes in their simulations to prepare their cars for the UK's roads.   Credit: FiveAI/FiveAI

Another niche factor of the UK's road network is people driving on the left-hand side of the road.

While only 31 per cent of the world's countries drive on the left, this could give driverless car companies in the UK an advantage over US companies. However, it would initially prevent British driverless cars working across than two thirds of the world's nations.  

Mr Lusty explained: "Driving on the left-hand side is definitely a differentiator. Although, it is something that is also going to be a problem if people want to move our cars into a location where they drive on the other side of the road.

"It is not quite as simple as just changing all the settings from left to right. It's not as easy as just flipping a switch. It is a non-trivial amount of extra work to do."