Back in the 1980s, we were promised flying cars by the year 2000.
And while that dream turned out to be mere pie-in-the-sky fantasy (or, more appropriately, not in the sky!) what are our chances of mass-producing cars that operate on auto-pilot?
Trust a tech pioneer like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) to step forward with the innovation behind this idea.
The company first announced that it was working on technology for its “driverless” car project in October 2010. At the time, the test cars had already clocked up 140,000 miles. Heck, the cars drove smoothly with zero human interference for 1,000-mile stretches.
According to The New York Times, “The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.”
Impressive, yes. But logical?
Look, No Hands!
Having tackled the South Florida stretch of I-95 as many times as I have, implementing the technology would surely be catastrophic.
After all, it’s one thing to have trained engineers control seven Google test cars and be ready to take over if anything goes awry. But it’s entirely different to put that technology on the open road.
Now, you might think that with drivers constantly fumbling with their phones, or doing their makeup while behind the wheel – the cause of numerous accidents – it’s a great idea to have technology do the work for them. But taking the human element out of the equation and telling people that their car can take them to work without assistance is bound to make the situation more dangerous.
Like it or not, however, the technology is now closer than ever to becoming official. That’s because Google now has a breakthrough patent for its driverless car technology.
So how does it work?
Hand Over the Keys… to the Car
In addition to using Google Maps (of course!), Google’s driverless cars rely on a system that combines radar sensors, video, and lasers to monitor surrounding cars and other objects.
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But the company’s first patent doesn’t actually cover any of these features. Instead, it concerns “methods and devices for transitioning a mixed-mode autonomous vehicle from a human driven mode to an autonomously driven mode.”
In other words: the ability for a vehicle to switch from manual to auto-pilot. And that sounds like the best patent to own if robotically-driven cars become all the rage.
But here’s the rub: The patent doesn’t cover the manual-to-automated transition occurring anywhere on the road, but instead on specific, pre-defined “landing strips.”
Essentially, the landing strips act as hand-off zones, where the driver transfers control of the car over to the vehicle’s artificial intelligence (AI). The strip would have some method of communicating with the vehicle wirelessly – for example, a special barcode, etched or painted on the pavement.
Once in position, the car could glean information – like precise location data – and load up routes automatically. It would then be in position to take over.
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At a time of year when negotiating jammed shopping mall parking lots is a nightmare, this system would be particularly effective at controlling road rage as you hunt for a parking space.
Rather than go nuts, you could simply pull into the mall’s designated auto-vehicle lane and let the car determine the closest free space. It could then reserve the spot in the mall’s system and take you there automatically. No middle finger required.
Granted, a patent on what amounts to a smart parking space isn’t going to get driverless cars on the road tomorrow. But at the very least, it indicates that the technology is on its way.
Plus, it ensures that Google will continue to maintain a significant role in the eventual transition. After all, using a designated zone to relinquish control over to the car’s AI is probably safer than allowing the car to take over without warning!
And given the breed of drivers on the road today, maybe handing the decision-making over to machines – at least in tightly controlled situations – might not be a bad idea.