Google gleans US patent to take self-driving cars to the roads

16 Dec 2011

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman; Google; Larry Page, CEO, and Sergey Brin, co-founder, in the Google self-driving hybrid car

Google has just been awarded a US patent to switch cars from human-controlled mode into driverless mode, so cars can self-drive. Sergey Brin, otherwise known as the ‘Enlightenment man’, is achieving his driverless car vision.

Brin, who is also an investor in Tesla Motors, has been envisioning for awhile now how, via artificial intelligence, deploying GPS video cameras and radar sensors, driverless cars could be on our roads, with the result being fewer accidents and lighter, streamlined vehicles.

Google filed for the patent back on 11 May 2011, but it has taken until now to get official intellectual rights.

Transitioning a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode

At the time, the abstract in the patent application stated: “Disclosed are methods and devices for transitioning a mixed-mode autonomous vehicle from a human driven mode to an autonomously driven mode. Transitioning may include stopping a vehicle on a predefined landing strip and detecting a reference indicator. Based on the reference indicator, the vehicle may be able to know its exact position. Additionally, the vehicle may use the reference indictor to obtain an autonomous vehicle instruction via a URL. After the vehicle knows its precise location and has an autonomous vehicle instruction, it can operate in autonomous mode.”

Landing strip

Via this new driverless tech, Google believes such driverless cars will know when to take control, where the car is positioned and where to steer the car.

Using sensors, the vehicle would work by dock at a landing strip. Then it would get directions or driving instructions from the internet via a URL, a radio link or a QR code.

Google already has a couple of such prototypes that it has been testing out, with some of them already having set out from Google’s Mountain View, California, base to traverse the US highways without any human intervention.

Google first announced this driverless car in October 2010. Speaking at a TechCrunch conference in San Francisco around that time, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt alluded to how he felt self-driving cars would one day be in a better position to drive than humans.

Taking humans out of he driving equation

So who could use such a car down the line?

Well, Google is suggesting this revolutionary new car tech, when patented, could be used for tourism purposes, to offer tours. That’s just one example.

US Department of Energy

Back in April, Google announced how it was teaming up with the US Department of Energy (DOE) to help consumers find charging stations in the US. At the time, the DOE said it was also pumping an extra US$5m in new funding to help accelerate electric vehicle take-up in the US. Coincidentally, Ireland is now ahead of the US in terms of vehicle take-up per capita, thanks to ESB’s e-car push here.

With the Obama Administration aiming to reduce US oil imports by one-third by 2025, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced earlier this year that US$5m in new funding would be made available for community-based efforts to deploy electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure and charging stations.

As part of this EV push, DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) linked in with Google and various industry leaders to provide consumers with information about the EV charging stations in communities across the US, launching the GeoEVSE Forum this year.

Drawing on Google Maps, this initiative co-ordinated an online network of all US charging stations. And its purpose? To serve as the primary data source for GPS and mapping services tracking electric vehicle charging locations.

Google has been promoting the take-up of EVs in the US via its RechargeIT initiative.

“Technology is an inherent democratiser,” said Brin. “Because of the evolution of hardware and software, you’re able to scale up almost anything. It means that in our lifetime everyone may have tools of equal power.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic