The short history of autonomous vehicles has already shown us that in a closed environmement, cars that drive themselves are pretty great. They're even pretty good at interacting with other autonomous cars.
In fact, the problems only begin when you introduce them to real world, non-autonomous environments, where things like bikes, dogs and terrible drivers can get in the way. Google's self driving cars have already been in several accidents during testing – but all (according to the company) were down to the actions of other humans, not the cars themselves.
So Google's new patent makes sense: it contains some new idea on how the cars can communicate with pedestrians on the road as a kind of replacement for all the hand-waving and other non-mechanical signals used by drivers in road situations. The most exciting of these is some kind of "physical signalling system" – also known as a robotic arm – used to wave pedestrians across the street.
This idea is particularly appealing given the anthropomorphic (i.e. cute) nature of some of the designs unveiled by the company earlier this year:
Another, more straightforward idea put forward in the patent includes a sign which flashes up a symbol of a pedestrian walking with a cross through it to tell people not to cross – or even a stop sign mounted on the car itself. An autonomous car could also make noises to indicate that someone should cross, or, as a Daily Mail headline had it, "SHOUT at pedestrians that get in its way".
These fixes aren't just to ensure safety : part of the problem Google and other autonomous car manufacturers face is that people will, especially at first, be suspicious of self-driving cars. As Google notes in its patent application for the signalling systems, "simply stopping a vehicle without these driver-initiated signals may not be sufficiently reassuring to the pedestrian that it is indeed safe to cross".
Anything which will help the cars communicate their intentions to those outside the vehicle will be a good thing, both for safety and for public trust in the futuristic cars. Those little faces won't hurt, either.
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