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Uber Patent Gives Autonomous Autos a Voice

By: Bridget Clerkin March 29, 2018
Uber's self-driving engineers are filing patents for a range of features meant to help its vehicles—like this self-driving Volvo pictured above—communicate their intentions to pedestrians more effectively in order to avoid injury and death.

In the wake of the first pedestrian death caused by an autonomous car, it’s more important than ever for self-driving vehicles to project their intent to the humans with whom they share the road. And now the company whose car was responsible for the deadly accident is proposing a way to bridge that communication divide.

Uber filed a patent earlier this month depicting myriad methods that its vehicles may use to express themselves to passersby—with the submission dated March 15, just three days before one of its test vehicles struck and killed a bicyclist in Arizona.

Possible solutions offered by the company include a range of light-based clarifications, from flashing arrows on the cars’ side-view mirrors, to a virtual driver manifesting in the window to point observers in the right direction, to crosswalks projected in front of the vehicle, to messages scrolling across the car’s front bumper area.

Still, Uber may utilize more than the sense of sight to get its message across. The company is also working on how different horn sounds could be used to alert pedestrians to its cars’ intentions, with a range of resonances hopefully translating into a variety of meanings for those within earshot.

Some of the communication ideas, both visual and aural, have already been discussed by a number of Uber’s biggest competitors, including the expressive horn noises and the projected crosswalk. The scattershot patent represents more of a snapshot of possible solutions the company is considering, rather than a final plan, said a representative of the rideshare giant’s design team.

All told, the LED wonderland and symphony of honks make for arguably the flashiest—and potentially most distracting—group of safety solutions in the modern age. But begging for more of a pedestrian’s attention may be a safer bet than not creating enough of a fuss, which could take the possibility of communiqué off the table all together and force the cars into making the ultimate unpleasant choice.

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