Google has patented a system to help driverless cars avoid cows

Here all day, folks. Image: Torstein Frogner at Wikimedia Commons.

Gradually, driverless cars seem to be overcoming their not-insignificant drawbacks. Last year, we found out that they still couldn't avoid potholes or small animals, or drive in heavy rain. Yet in March, a driverless car drove from one side of the US to the other - presumably encountering a pothole or two along the way. How far we've come.

And now, another milestone on the march to victory: Google has figured out how to stop them from either smashing into cows,  or getting stuck behind them for days on end.

The company patented a system at the end of March which would help the cars navigate around large objects in their path. These could be other cars, a fallen tree, or a group of cows blocking the road. One sensor on the car would detect where the obstruction is, while another would time how long the car was stuck for. 

If you're stuck behind something for long enough, the system would either navigate around the obstacle using an algorithm, or ask for human assistance from the passenger or someone at Google HQ. From the patent document:

In some instances, while in non-autonomous mode, the autonomous vehicle may operate like a traditional, non-autonomous vehicle. 

Here's an immensely technical diagram showing a driverless car figuring out what to do while stuck behind some cows:

Image: US Patent and Trademark Office. 

As you can imagine, this system has its pitfalls, as it relies on the machine making a decision about when to ask for help. As was pointed out by the Washington Post

If the car can’t tell the difference between when it’s really stuck, and when it just needs to be patient, that could be a disaster for Google. Imagine hundreds of self-driving cars stuck in heavy traffic as a concert or sport event lets out, all contacting and overwhelming the assistance center.

At the same time, you wouldn’t want a self-driving car stopped behind a double-parked car for five minutes, thinking it’s just stuck in traffic.

And when it comes to the cows, it seems like they've over-complicated things - we're of the humble opinion that a loud horn triggered by the scent of livestock would probably do the trick. Patent pending. 


Podcast: Beyond the wall, with John Lanchester

A sea wall in Japan. Image: Getty.

This week it’s another live episode, of sorts. In early April I was lucky enough to chair an event at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

John was mostly there to promote his latest novel, The Wall, a “cli-fi” book about a Britain trundling on after catastrophic climate change has wiped out much of the planet. In the past he’s also written about other vaguely CityMetric-y topics like the housing crisis and the tube - so he’s a guest I’ve been hoping to get on for a while, and was kind enough to allow us to record our chat for posterity and podcasting purposes.

Incidentally, I didn’t find a way of turning the conversation to the tube. We do lose ten minutes to talking about Game of Thrones, though.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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