Google’s Waymo has proven its self-driving system in extreme heat by testing its Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Death Valley.

Extreme weather testing is an integral part of the automotive industry. Manufacturers regularly travel to the Arctic Circle and the likes of Dubai and South Africa to put their cars through their paces under extreme conditions that will test their machines to the limit.

Cooling systems, air conditioning and even four-wheel-drive systems come under the microscope in extreme temperatures and conditions.

Cameras might lie in the heat

Self-driving systems rely on cameras, which could potentially be affected by a heat haze.

Radar and LiDAR ranges can also be affected by extreme heat and this could be a disaster if the car simply cannot see far ahead to take evasive action or even follow a curve in the road. Even police radars are affected by extreme temperatures.

The systems themselves generate heat, too, and if the car is in a harsh environment then there is a slight possibility of the equipment overheating and shutting down.

“If you’ve used your cell phone in the bright sun on a hot day you may have experienced it shutting down. Our self-driving system needs to be much more reliable than your typical home electronics,” Simon Ellgas, thermal engineer.

Road trip to Vegas

Waymo has been testing its cars in extreme conditions in the lab, but controlled conditions and the real world are two entirely different things and the company headed to Nevada on a three-day trek from Davis Dam on the Arizona border to Las Vegas.

Ford recently tested its self-driving systems at night and in the Michigan snow to make sure the car can tell the difference between rain and actual snow. The human eye can make this distinction in a fraction of a second, but it’s a more complex task to program computers to differentiate the two.

The fact that these experiments are happening now shows there’s still a way to go before the manufacturers have absolute confidence in their self-driving systems. It does show, however, that the basics are pretty much in place and the cars probably could take the wheel in perfect conditions right now.

Tesla is streets ahead

Another interesting aspect is the way that the likes of Waymo and Ford are running these tightly controlled experiments, while Tesla has all the hardware fitted to customer cars that are doing the hard yards for the Palo Alto company.

Customer Teslas are running at night, in the desert and in the snow on an almost daily basis and they’re all sending vast reams of data back to the company HQ. This real world information is an increasing competitive advantage for Tesla and the amount of data is mindboggling.

The company has already collected information from 4 billion miles of real world driving and that will go up exponentially as the cheaper, mass market Model 3 hits the road.

It makes Waymo’s three-day journey look like a grain of sand in the desert and we’re starting to see the genius behind fitting the hardware to customer cars long before the regulators give it the green light.