When driving around, humans communicate with fellow drivers and pedestrians using combinations of hand signals and facial expressions – and many of us may have even opened a window to shout an ‘opinion’ regarding another driver’s lack of road etiquette!
But what happens if someday no human being is at the wheel? How will cars communicate with others cars and people in their immediate environment in the future? As autonomous cars take on more and more shape, different companies are thinking about how the vehicles can get in touch with other road users.
Not content with disrupting the taxi industry, Uber as it turns out has an idea what that might look like and has just filed a patent application to describe their thoughts. The idea is simple, and in fact builds on the ‘available’ signal traditional taxis use of a light on the top of the vehicle. The conceptual illustration in the patent is somewhat familiar: a kind of display would be attached to the front of the vehicle, on which arrows and words would appear to indicate the vehicles intentions. The same would apply to the side of the vehicle, with arrows on the mirrors and at the front and rear, and words displaying on the side doors.
If the car had slowed down and a pedestrian wished to cross in front of the Uber autonomous vehicle, the car would project a virtual zebra crossing onto the street. The illiterate – a child perhaps – would also enjoy a small “virtual driver” located behind the windshield who could point in the direction that the pedestrians can cross.
The patent describes so much flashing and signalling you could sell the car as a traveling Las Vegas Strip – subtle it is not!
Sean Chin, a product designer at Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, which oversees its autonomous vehicle program doesn’t see it as over the top though. Talking to The Verge, he said, “In the real world, when there’s a human driver, they’re usually not shouting out the window, ‘Hey I’m slowing down now.’ There are subtle things you can do, like a head nod or flashing lights. And while we don’t have final implementation, what we’re considering is what is a new language we can create to give people that information.”
Instead, he says the patent should be understood as more of a guide than a directive, that Uber is considering regarding that of driverless car communication. For example, the company also explores how autonomous cars could communicate via sound, with audio speakers also built-into the sides of the vehicle.
Chin added, “As operators, we have a high certainty about what the car is doing and what it plans to do. What we need to do is enable pedestrians to interpret this behavior on their own.”
The ride sharing service is not the only company working on the communication problem surrounding self-driving cars. Google, for example, has long ago also filed its own patent, which contains a number of ideas: Brilliant “Walk” – or “Do Not Walk” signs on the cars, image displays and acoustic signals.
However the concept of autonomous car communication eventually comes to reality, one thing is for sure. If you’re going to cross the road you had better Stop, Look and Listen!
Editor’s note: Since publishing this article, Uber have suspended testing of self-driving cars after a woman died after being hit by one of their driverless cars in Arizona on Sunday 18th March 2018. Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi expressed condolences on Twitter and said the company was working with local law enforcement on the investigation.