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7 insane roads that will push self-driving cars to their very limits

The technology that powers autonomous cars has clearly improved by leaps and bounds over the years.

Tech companies and automakers alike are now investing billions of dollars in further development, with the aim of building a self-driving vehicle that can comfortably handle any type of traffic scenario.

But for a car to be classified as truly autonomous, we believe it should first be put to the test in some of the world’s most extreme driving scenarios.

So, ask yourself, would you be happy climbing into a driverless car for a ride on these insane roads?

The Magic Roundabout, Swindon, England

Google

Once voted the scariest road junction in England, Swindon’s so-called “Magic Roundabout” comprises five mini traffic circles that make up a giant traffic circle that encircles a sixth one, which can be driven in both a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction. Confused? You will be. Drivers approaching it for the first time usually break into a cold sweat, while others are rumored to have spent several weeks lost in the maze-like junction, wondering if there’s a way out. What we do know is this: Any self-driving car worthy of the name will have to be able to handle this terrifying junction with aplomb, though to do so may require a few extra lines of code in the algorithms that power it.

Fairy Meadows Road, Pakistan

Despite having a name that conjures up blissful images of idyllic summer drives, Fairy Meadows Road in reality offers a pants-soiling ride of a lifetime, running as it does along a narrow gravel road situated precariously between a sheer cliff and a sheer drop. While we know in our heart that we should be able to trust an autonomous car more than a human driver, we also know that technology can occasionally fail. Tootling along Fairy Meadows Road in a self-driving car is one place where you’ll really want your car’s technology to be at the top of its game. After all, a malfunction along here will almost certainly result in you and your vehicle tumbling thousands of feet into a ravine, with all of that onboard computing power unable to rectify the situation once you’ve disappeared over the edge.

Meskel Square, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Meskel Square isn’t only a road junction — it’s also used as a site for festivals and other public gatherings. However, seeing how it lacks the kind of accoutrements you’d ordinarily associate with a busy intersection — think traffic lights, road markings, and signs — using it for motorized vehicles seems to have been something of an afterthought. Looking at the video, at first glance it’s easy to imagine every one of those drivers screaming wide-eyed as they hurtle into the open space and hope for the best. But watch for a bit longer and you’ll soon realize that they seem to have developed a special understanding among one another about how to use this absurdly unfathomable intersection. For a bunch of autonomous cars to tackle it with the same level of skill will certainly require some computer programming of the highest order, with inter-vehicle communication central to the junction’s smooth operation. Failure here could result in gridlock for the rest of the day. Or possibly eternity.

Winston Churchill Avenue, Gibraltar

Google

Gibraltar, if you didn’t already know it, is a small British territory connected to southern Spain. Located between the two is Gibraltar International Airport, which in 2017 handled nearly 5,000 flights, equal to about 14 a day. That’s all well and good, except that the runway intersects with Winston Churchill Avenue, which is the main road that runs between Gibraltar and Spain. So yes, each time a plane lands or takes off, little road vehicles need to give way to giant flying ones. If you were a passenger inside an autonomous car, you’d definitely want to be sure that your vehicle fully recognized it was crossing an airport runway, and that it had no chance of becoming confused if its sensors picked up a Boeing 737 approaching at speed from just along the street.

Place Charles de Gaulle, Paris, France

It’s fair to say that when Place Charles de Gaulle was completed in its current form some 150 years ago, there wasn’t much happening in the way of traffic. Jump forward to today and the giant traffic circle, which is fed by 12 avenues and surrounds the Arc de Triomphe, has become one of craziest junctions on the planet. In theory, autonomous technology should one day be capable of transforming the traffic chaos on this baffling junction into an elegant ballet of perfectly timed maneuvers. But for that to happen, all of the cars will need to be autonomous, in which case an orderly Place Charles de Gaulle is likely to be years away from becoming a reality.

Taganskaya Square, Moscow, Russia

Google

Any company making autonomous cars will have to be able to confidently send their vehicle into the seemingly terrifying chaos that is Moscow’s Taganskaya Square — and be sure that it’ll emerge unscathed. This giant junction comprises lots of smaller, mainly six-lane junctions and is busy during most hours of the day. For human drivers, it’s not uncommon to find yourself forced into taking a wrong turn because you got in the wrong lane on approach. A driverless car at the top of its game, on the other hand, should be able to take on Taganskaya and win.

Hanshin Expressway, Osaka, Japan

On first approach, this highway in the Japanese city of Osaka looks as if it passes through an office building. Oh hang on, that’s because it does. Built in 1992, the road passes straight through three floors of the building, the rest of which caters to office workers. So the story goes, the bizarre design was agreed upon as a way of resolving a property dispute when the area was undergoing redevelopment. Can makers of autonomous cars honestly say that their vehicle wouldn’t freak out and slam on the brakes the moment it caught sight of an office tower right in front of it? It certainly won’t have seen such a spectacle before, so would surely approach with caution, sniffing its way like a dog in the dark until it realized there was actually a way through. Tunnels through mountains is one thing, but a road through a building? Now there’s a unique situation for your self-driving car to ponder.

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