Apple’s Driverless Cars May Have a Lot to Say

Apple still isn’t saying much about its self-driving car program but if it ever puts vehicles on the road, they may tell you everything you need to know, all the time.

The company just won a patent on a system that would let autonomous cars display their next moves. The idea is to help make other drivers and pedestrians feel more comfortable having the cars around. The patent, reported by Patently Apple, describes a system that would combine route-finding and decision-making with displays or laser projectors on the outside of the car. It’s too soon to say whether this system will make it into an Apple car, or whether the company will even build one, but it might make some autonomous vehicles easier to deal with or, at least, to notice.

Here’s how it would work: when the car is given a starting point and destination, it determines a route that includes all turns, lane changes and other details; as it gets close to doing a maneuver, it uses words and symbols to indicate what it’s about to do; and could also show whether it was in manual or autonomous mode.

To help drivers and pedestrians anticipate and react to each move, the car could display a countdown of the time or distance until it happens, Apple says. The signals may show up on a display on the car or projected onto the roadway or nearby walls using a bright, laser display system that presumably would be visible day or night.

Surveys show many people are uneasy about AVs and some companies are already taking steps to reassure other road users what the cars are thinking. Self-driving vans operated by in Frisco, Texas, have four exterior screens that display messages to drivers and pedestrians. Toyota’s Concept I vehicle, unveiled last year, included the idea of integrated screens to display messages. Part of the concept is to allow AVs to communicate some of the many things human drivers can convey through gestures and expressions. For example, drivers often make eye contact and wave while negotiating intersections with pedestrians and drivers. With no one behind the wheel, a car may need to make up for that.

Calling for an end to jaywalking in order to make AVs work, as investor Andrew Ng did in a recent Bloomberg article, is unrealistic, said Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid. “The technology has to be designed to work with human behavior, not the other way around,” he said. After all, jaywalking has been against the law for about a century and that hasn’t stopped people from crossing in the middle of the block.

Messaging systems like what Apple is proposing might help to make peace between AVs and human drivers and pedestrians, Abuelsamid said but making these displays effective might take many adjustments based on answers no one has yet. What would happen, for example, if a car signaled that a pedestrian could cross in front of it and then suddenly changed its plans?

The new patent and other Apple innovations may yet appear in an Apple-badged car, Abuelsamid said. With the company’s expertise in things like chips and sensors (iPhone X face detection, for one) it might put its own AVs on the road. “Just because you’re not first doesn’t mean you can’t succeed,” he said.

However, it’s more likely Apple will bypass car making per se and instead integrate its technology into a partner’s vehicles, Abuelsamid said. For one thing, as Silicon Valley’s first car company is discovering, auto margins are slim. “Apple doesn’t do low-margin businesses,” he said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *