Google’s self-driving car plans revealed in patent applications

Several patent applications from Google made public Dec. 22 provide a window into the secretive self-driving car program the firm just spun off as a separate business called Waymo.

The creation of Waymo was widely viewed as a step toward commercialization of Google’s self-driving technology, and naturally raised questions about what form the commercial applications would take.

Earlier this month, a report based on anonymous sources suggested that Google was backing away from plans to put robot cars on the road without steering wheels, brake pedals or any way for humans to intervene. But this week, Honda announced it’s in talks with Waymo to put the Google technology into Honda cars for “fully self-driving” vehicles.

A patent application from Google suggests the company envisions cars that would have steering wheels and brake pedals for people to use in manual or semi-autonomous modes, but be capable of fully autonomous driving while in a different mode.

And in that mode, the autonomous system would have no need for mirrors. In May, Google applied for a patent on a “removable side mirror” for a vehicle.

“An autonomous vehicle operating in a fully autonomous mode does not require the same features required by a human driver,” Google’s patent application said. “For example, when the autonomous vehicle is in full autonomous mode, laser scanning equipment, cameras, and the autonomous vehicle control system control the path of the vehicle, obviating the need for front and rear-side view mirrors and a steering wheel.

“However, a human driver operating the autonomous vehicle requires such features to operate the autonomous vehicle, for example, in a manual or semiautonomous mode.

“When driven by a human driver, the removable side view mirror can be attached; and when the autonomous vehicle operates in a fully autonomous mode, the side view mirror assembly may be detached.”

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made public two other Google patents related to self-driving cars, both of which offer insights into the company’s plans for the vehicles.

One application concerns “pickup and destination locations for autonomous vehicles,” and indicates that Google, now Waymo, envisions a dispatch-based system, perhaps similar to Uber, for picking up and delivering people and goods.

“The user may provide a pickup location and one or more destination locations for the trip to a centralized dispatching system via a client computing device, such as a mobile phone,” said the application, filed in June 2015.

And another application, which addresses “remote assistance for an automomous vehicle in low-confidence situations,” describes weaknesses in the perceptive abilities of self-driving cars — at least as of September when the application was filed.

Google described a system in which a person, or a sophisticated computer, can provide help to a self-driving car that finds itself in one of those “low-confidence situations.”

So, what causes a robot car to lose faith in its abilities?

“The car may be able to identify some type of blockage on the road, but may be unsure exactly what is causing the blockage or how to proceed,” the application said. “The vehicle may at some point become uncertain as to its current position within an environment (e.g., when it sees road markers or objects in unexpected locations), and may be unsure how or why it ended up in its current circumstance.

“A request for assistance may be sent when the vehicle’s view in certain directions is obstructed such that the vehicle cannot properly characterize its environment in order to determine how to proceed.

“As another example, when the vehicle is unsure how to classify a particular aspect of the environment (e.g., is an object that looks like a pedestrian really a pedestrian?), a request may be sent to the remote assistor for clarification.

“If the car is stuck for a certain period of time, it may send a request for assistance to the remote assistor, which may then indicate how the car should proceed (e.g., pass a road blockage using the left lane).

“The remote assistor may identify nearby construction work and instruct the vehicle to operate at a slower speed. In further examples, the response from the guide may indicate future actions of the vehicle (e.g., to change lanes or pull over as soon as practical).”


Image: Car from Google, now Waymo, with detachable side mirror (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)


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