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Google's Self-Driving Cars Could Use Text, Robotic Hands to Communicate with Pedestrians

Google has secured a patent to help its autonomous vehicles bridge the communications gap with pedestrians.

by / December 1, 2015
Google's patent application shows possible displays an autonomous vehicle could feature helping it communicate its plans to pedestrians. U.S. Patent Office/Google

The direction of innovation in the auto industry is for cars to connect with a lot of things — traffic signals, central databases, each other. But the human brain is woefully lacking in its capability to connect directly with computers. So as automakers develop the means for cars to drive themselves, how will those vehicles communicate with people around them?

The U.S. Patent Office has granted a patent to Google, which has by far the largest fleet of self-driving vehicles on California’s public streets, for an idea aimed at bridging the gap between humans and autonomous vehicles. The idea is to basically outfit cars with external outputs of some kind — text displays, speakers, etc. — that can relay to pedestrians what the self-driving software has decided to do. For instance, an image or text could let people know that it's safe to cross the street.

Google’s patent application, originally filed in 2012, leaves open several possibilities for the exact means of conveying information to pedestrians.

“A signaling device may be more advanced than typical signaling devices, for example, light up signs such as walk and don't walk lights or other image displays,” the application reads. “The signaling devices may also provide notifications that combine visible information (such as words, symbols or lights) with audible chimes or instructions (for example ‘safe to cross’ or ‘coming through’ or something similar), for example, using a speaker. Other types of notification devices may include mechanisms that mimic human behaviors such as a robotic hand to make gestures or robotic eyes on the vehicle that allow the pedestrian to recognize that the vehicle ‘sees’ the pedestrian.” 

Those observing the development of self-driving cars have noted a concern that humans have some trouble co-existing with the vehicles. Google’s test cars, mostly roaming the streets of Mountain View, Calif., tend to drive more slowly than their human counterparts — so much so that a police officer recently pulled one over for holding up traffic. An October study on autonomous car crashes from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that the self-driving cars have yet to be at fault in an accident, but have so far been involved in crashes at a higher rate than human-driven cars. Some, like Consumer Watchdog’s John Simpson, have suggested that that is because humans are used to human behavior and the odd actions of self-driving machines throw off their ability to anticipate what the vehicles will do.

The patent application stresses that the external communication features on self-driving cars are meant to help them communicate better with pedestrians.

“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,” the application reads. “In addition, the notifications provided by the computer do not originate from, nor do they require specific input from the driver of the vehicle.”

Google isn’t the only company pursuing the idea. Nissan demonstrated a concept in October where a car flashes text to a pedestrian crossing the street in front of it reading “after you.”

The Patent Office granted Google’s application on Nov. 24.

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