Can Google make its self-driving cars talk?

Google has received a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for ways self-driving cars might communicate to pedestrians, according to the office.

As Google points out in its application, autonomous cars don’t have the same ability to communicate with pedestrians as normal cars driven by humans. They can’t make eye contact (no eyes) or wave someone across a crosswalk (no hands).

How will it work?

The Washington Post summarizes the patent as thus:

The patent describes using electronic screens mounted on the side of the vehicle — including potentially the roof, hood and rear of vehicle — to tell a pedestrians if it was safe to cross. The displays might show a stop sign, a traffic sign, or just text. The car might react by coming to a complete stop, slowing down and yielding, or maintaining its speed.

There are other potential communication tools suggested by the patent – perhaps a speaker could tell the pedestrian that it is “safe to cross” or “coming through.”

I can see the potential for customizing these words — “get out of the way” or “I’m in a rush and don’t plan to stop.”

What about robot hands or even just robot eyes — presumably detached from any robot body — communicating with pedestrians that they have been seen? The patent suggests that as a possibility.

Yes, we are approaching a strange new world.

As The Post points out, Google, which filed the patent in 2012, joins other companies working on the same problem. Nissan showed off a “concept car” that has an outward-facing display communicating to walkers and bikers, The Post wrote.

Car companies — and regulators — should think about implementing these sorts of innovations as soon as possible — if they actually work and receive state and federal regulatory approval.

Cars killing humans who are on foot or on bicycle is far too common, particularly in crowded cities. Could this technology be implemented on all cars, even those driven by humans? If it has the potential to save lives, it should be considered. Because right now, our cars are still crude communicators — a horn, an indicator, brake lights and headlights. That’s all we have, except for the rude gesturing that humans add to the mix.

Above: Screenshot of images from Google patent on self-driving vehicles’ communications with pedestrians. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)


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