Google envisions imperfect self-driving cars that need human help

Google, it appears, is imagining a future in which self-driving technology hits public roads before it’s fully capable of navigating them.

The firm on Dec. 27 received a patent for a route-choosing system, and the patent document indicates that the firm, which recently spun the self-driving project into a separate company called Waymo, is seeking to solve the problem of autonomous systems that drive better than people in most situations, but fall short in others.

“Often an autonomous vehicle cannot or should not drive an entire route in fully autonomous mode due to road conditions or other environmental factors,” the document said. “Thus, some routes may require some amount driver control or interaction at some point during the trip.”

However, the driver typically won’t know about the need to take control until just before it arises, the document said.

So the patented system would estimate the likelihood that the autonomous system would fail to drive properly at points along a particular route, and come up with “control information” that would describe “which portions of a particular route may be maneuvered in a manual mode (where the driver generally has control of the vehicle) or an autonomous mode (where the computer maneuvers the vehicle without continuous input form the driver).”

The control information may also cover a “semiautonomous mode” in which “the computer controls some aspects of the vehicle while the driver controls others.”

And while navigation systems usually give drivers information about distance and trip time, Google’s system would also include how much of a potential route would require driver intervention and how much could be driven solely by the robot car.

A driver would then choose a route based on how much they wanted to be involved in the driving.

This patent is the latest from Google that points to a revised approach to self-driving technology. The firm had appeared by be hewing to a plan in which its autonomous vehicles never needed human intervention, and a recent press release from Honda about a potential partnership with Waymo was focused on “fully self-driving technology.”

But Google in May applied for a patent on removable side mirrors for autonomous vehicles, based on an expectation that the cars would switch from fully autonomous driving to human-controlled driving.

Still, just because a technology is patented doesn’t mean it will ever come to light, and the plans for Waymo cannot be deduced conclusively via patents and patent applications.


Photo: A Google self-driving car travels eastbound on San Antonio Road in Mountain View in 2015 (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)


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  • Micheal Luigi Pacitto

    Basically, it will be like a video game. Autopiollet through the boring bits, and only need to play through the interesting bits.