How Google Cars Will Assess Threats to Play Well with Others


A new patent filed by Alphabet (formerly Google) explains how Google cars will assess threats and communicate with other drivers and pedestrians. The patent lays out some ideas for how driverless cars might communicate with the pedestrians around them, allowing the vehicles to broadcast their intentions without being overly aggressive. Originally filed in 2012, the company received the patent on November 24, 2015.

Patent Drawing Of Driverless Google Car Signals

Patent Drawing Of Driverless Google Car Signals

Self-driving car proponents face one nagging problem: How will self-driving vehicles communicate with people? It’s not as though a driverless car can say to a pedestrian, “Get out of the way!”

How Google Cars And Pedestrians Coexist

Imagine a green light and a crosswalk littered with straggling pedestrians. It’s a common problem for drivers — one that usually results in some yelling out the window or perhaps a hurried hand wave — something a driverless car cannot do.

Driverless Google Cars Detecting Pedestrians

Driverless Google Cars Detecting Pedestrians

To overcome this problem, Alphabet says it may equip its autonomous cars with sensors that can detect objects around them, namely, pedestrians attempting to cross the street.

More interesting, though, is where the patent also outlines options for the driverless car to notify pedestrians of its intent, including a physical signaling device, an electronic sign or lights, or even a speaker that could provide audio communication.

According to the document, “The notifications may replace those signals initiated by a driver, such as making eye contact with, waving to, speaking to, or flashing lights to a pedestrian while also sufficiently reassuring the pedestrian that it is indeed safe or not safe to cross the roadway.”

For example a flashing stop sign on the side door would let humans know when not to cross the street in front of the car. A sign on the front bumper could flash when it was safe to pass in front of the car. And a robotic hand could give the kind of signals to fellow motorists they often look for from other humans.

Driverless Google Cars Detecting Reckless Drivers

Driverless Google Cars Detecting Reckless Drivers

How Google Cars Detect Reckless Drivers

Still more interesting, the patent suggests that Alphabet has figured out a way for its autonomous cars to deal with aggressive drivers. Driverless vehicles are, by design, very defensive drivers. But, driverless cars are going to need to be able to deal with jerks that weave between lanes, speed, and are otherwise unsafe.

There’s a whole bunch of different inputs that the sensors in Google’s driverless vehicles will be able to detect, that will ultimately decide whether another, manned car is a threat or not.

Alphabet says its cars will be able to recognize other vehicles that are “exceeding a speed limit, driving fast for given road conditions, excessive lane changing without cause, failing to signal intent to pass another vehicle, tailgating another vehicle, using the horn excessively, and flashing headlights excessively at oncoming traffic.”

Its cars will also be able to detect other vehicles’ sizes and will be able to make a value judgment about what’s more of a threat, given two or more reckless drivers.

Alphabet intends to address safety issues, which may in turn help the tech giant tackle regulatory hurdles — key to broader acceptance of driverless cars. Regulators are somewhat at a loss about how to handle this rapidly expanding technology.

Note: Alphabet announced that its driverless car unit, until now part of Google X, would become a separate operating subsidiary as part of the restructured Google.

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