Shoddy infrastructure has become a roadblock to the development of self-driving cars, vexing engineers and adding time and cost. Poor markings and uneven signage on the 3 million miles of paved roads in the United States are 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.
An estimated 65 percent of U.S. roads are in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, with the transportation infrastructure system rated 12th in the World Economic Forum's 2014-2015 global competitiveness report.
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 flummoxed 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.
In other developed countries, greater standardization of road signs and markings makes it easier for robot cars to navigate. In the U.S., 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."
Even Volvo's North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers, lost his cool as the automaker's semi-autonomous prototype sporadically refused to drive itself during a press event at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
"It can't find the lane markings!" Kerssemakers griped to Mayor Eric Garcetti, who was at the wheel. "You need to paint the bloody roads here!"