Google's fleet of self-driving cars don't just drive themselves. Pretty soon, they could be talking to pedestrians too.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has awarded Google a patent for a "pedestrian notifications" application that will allow its futuristic-looking cars to communicate with pedestrians. The patent involves technology that will allow the car to sense if a person is standing in front or close to the vehicle and decide its next move.
"The vehicle may include sensors which detect an object such as a pedestrian attempting or about to cross the roadway in front of the vehicle," the patent says (PDF). "The vehicle's computer may then determine the correct way to respond to the pedestrian. [...] The vehicle may then provide a notification to the pedestrian of what the vehicle is going to do or is currently doing."
Methods of notification include voice alerts issued from speakers on the outside of the car. Possible voice alerts may include "safe to cross" when the car determines it is so, or "coming through" when it decides to continue along its path and not let pedestrians through.
The patent also includes side screens that can be placed on the outside of the car. For instance, a screen placed on the door of the car may display the traditional traffic sign that allows pedestrians to cross, or it may show a text message that tells them it's safe to do so. The screens can also be placed on the hood of the car or the bumper to allow the car to communicate with other motorists on the road.
Google's cars could also one day add robotic hands and eyes that could mimic the gestures that human drivers usually make to each other and to pedestrians to communicate. It's still unclear how Google plans to implement this, although we imagine a severed robotic hand could terrify some pedestrians.
Nonetheless, the goal of Google's self-driving cars is to make American roads, and possibly all roads elsewhere, safer for motorists and pedestrians. So far, it looks like Google is creeping up toward that goal, as its self-driving cars have earned quite a reputation for themselves for being safe, in fact, maybe too safe for their own good.
In one case, a Google self-driving car was even pulled off the road and given a ticket for being too slow. If Google does plan to equip autonomous vehicles with communication skills, perhaps motorists and pedestrians may find it easier to navigate the roads next to robotic cars.