The Next Challenge for Waymo's Self-Driving Cars Is a Michigan Winter

Autonomous cars need to be able to function anywhere normal cars can.

Waymo

After subjecting self-driving cars to the heat of Death Valley, Waymo will send them to Michigan this winter for some cold-weather testing. The goal is to give the autonomous cars more practice driving in snow, sleet, and ice, according to a Waymo blog post.

Waymo considers Michigan to be the ideal testing ground not only because it can serve up some intense winter weather, but because the former Google self-driving car project already has a presence there. Waymo opened a 53,000-square-foot facility in Novi in May 2016, which outfitted the company's current fleet of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans with autonomous-driving gear. The fact that Novi is only about 30 miles from Chrysler's hometown of Auburn Hills probably helps, too.

Snowy conditions present the same challenge for self-driving cars as they do for human drivers. Precipitation can limit the ability of an autonomous car's sensors to "see" the environment, and the cars have to "learn" to drive on slippery roads. Waymo plans to evaluate how well its sensors work in these less-than-ideal conditions, and teach its cars to drive on snow and ice.

Self-driving cars have to perform in the same conditions that conventional cars and human drivers do, so Waymo isn't the first developer to try tackling winter weather. Ford began testing self-driving cars in winter conditions last year at Mcity, a simulated city built by the University of Michigan specifically for autonomous-car testing. The Blue Oval devised a way of using map data to allow cars to orient themselves when sensors were blinded by snow.