The winter weather in the UK this week, plus Volvo’s announcement that it’s extending its Drive Me autonomous driving project to families in Sweden, a very snowy country, raises the question of how self-driving vehicles will cope with extreme weather once they are let loose on the world’s roads.

This isn’t just a topic for idle speculation. Nor, is it purely an academic question. Rather, it may be vitally important for the future of the transportation and automotive industries, as well as for hopes that self-driving vehicles will dramatically reduce congestion, pollution and road deaths.

Coping with extreme weather

Put simply, if self-driving vehicles aren’t able to cope effectively with black ice, blizzards, flash flooding, sandstorms, hurricanes, or smog – or at least cope with them as well as human drivers – then many of the expectations for them will be hard to realize. Insurance companies may not insure autonomous vehicles, their cargos or their passengers if the risk is too high.

Meanwhile, regulators and government authorities will need additional assurances to promote them over regular forms of transport. Many new transport and mobility business models predicated on autonomous vehicles could be strangled at birth.

The problems for self-driving vehicles in difficult driving conditions are many. Most conspicuously onboard visual sensors can be challenged by bad weather, potentially confused by snowfall or blinded by obscured road signs and markings. Then there is the added complexity of the vehicle’s interface with the road surface. Black ice and other slippery conditions offer major challenges to safe driving, even for the best human drivers, let alone to a vehicle’s onboard artificial intelligence (AI).

Testing autonomous vehicles

Despite the rapid, often startling, progress towards making vehicles able to think and drive themselves, surprisingly little testing has been done in extreme weather conditions. The sunny climes of California favored by the autonomous vehicle industry to date aren’t representative of the world’s driving conditions as a whole.

The major players are neither unaware of these challenges nor complacent about them. Ford, for instance, has been doing winter testing of driverless cars in its notoriously icy Michigan home since January 2016, specifically to work on this issue, though details of the tests have not been disclosed. Google spin-off Waymo – arguably the leader in fully autonomous, driverless vehicle technology – has also turned its attention to winter driving, and is conducting extensive testing, again in Michigan, this winter.

This ramp up in winter testing of autonomous vehicles is both welcome and necessary. But it’s not clear that the difficulties such vehicles face in extreme weather conditions will be solved anytime soon. Indeed, some researchers believe that it may be another five to ten years before autonomous vehicles are able to safely operate in extreme weather conditions. Even if this is an optimistic estimate it may be considerably longer before insurers, authorities and passengers are convinced enough to welcome self-driving vehicles, wholesale.

Moreover, there is no reason to think that all, or even several, of the leading protagonists in autonomous vehicles will “solve” the problems of extreme weather driving in the same timeframe. Indeed, such issues are likely to amplify the differences between the key players. This will add a whole extra layer of complexity to the widespread use of autonomous vehicles.

There is little reason to think that these issues won’t be overcome eventually. But it’s not good news for those hoping for the transportation revolution tomorrow.