Google's self-driving system captures live video and interlaces it with pre-existing information about the roadway

Driverless cars confused by substandard American roads

Poor quality road markings and uneven signage on American roads are hampering the development of self-driving cars and creating difficulties for engineers that is adding time and cost.

An estimated 65 per cent of the three million miles of paved roads in the US are in poor condition, according to the US Department of Transportation, forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps to compensate, industry executives say.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently called the mundane issue of faded lane markings ‘crazy’, complaining they confused his semi-autonomous cars.

At a recent press event, Volvo's North American CEO Lex Kerssemakers, expressed his anger at the situation when one of the company’s driverless prototypes sporadically refused to drive itself.

"It can't find the lane markings!" he said. "You need to paint the bloody roads here!"

Tesla, Volvo, Mercedes, Audi and others are fielding vehicles that can drive on highways, change lanes and park without human help.

But they are easily confused by faded lane markers, damaged or noncompliant signs or lights, and the many quirks of a roadway infrastructure managed by thousands of state and local bureaucracies.

Technological advancements could help to alleviate the difficulties faced. Ford recently demonstrated driverless cars that scan their surroundings with lidar technology to build a 3D map of the area, allowing them to drive in snowy conditions and navigate without crashing into obstacles.

In other developed countries, greater standardisation of road signs and markings makes it easier for robot cars to navigate. For example, an American start-up is about to start testing its electric driverless taxis in Singapore to help the city-state reduce congestion and fight pollution.

In the US, however, traffic lights can be aligned vertically, horizontally or "dog-house" style in two columns. Pavement markings use paint with different degrees of reflectivity or don't exist at all.

"If the lane fades, all hell breaks loose," said Christoph Mertz, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. "But cars have to handle these weird circumstances and have three different ways of doing things in case one fails."

To make up for roadway aberrations, car makers and their suppliers are incorporating multiple sensors, maps and data into their cars, all of which adds cost.

Mercedes says the ‘drive pilot’ system found in its recently unveiled luxury E Class 2017 sedans works even with no lane markings. The system, which incorporates 23 sensors, takes into account guard rails, barriers, and other cars to keep cars in their lanes up to 135km per hour, under ‘suitable circumstances’.

Boston Consulting Group estimates that initial semi-autonomous features add $4,000 to a car's price. It estimated car makers will have to spend more than $1bn over the next decade in research investment for even more sophisticated autonomous features.

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