Google self-driving carThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved a patent that will move Google’s self-driving car one step closer to being on roadways in large numbers, although Google has not indicated any timeline for when that will happen. The patent, which was applied for in May and approved on December 13, is officially titled “Transitioning a Mixed-mode Vehicle to Autonomous Mode.” Mashable Tech explains that the patent includes a way for a car to automatically take full control while a human is in the driver’s seat, after the car passes a reference indicator.

As Jessica Guynn reports on the Los Angeles Times Technology blog, the patent involves two sets of sensors. One set identifies a “landing strip” when the vehicle stops. It is embedded in the ground, and is a radio, square bar code, or some other auto technology that transfers information to the car.

According to BBC, the landing strip triggers the second set of sensors, which receive data from Google about where the car is and where it is supposed to go. The landing strip provides the human driver information about where there are parking spaces, and it also might let the vehicle itself know it is parked in a place where it can move into autonomous mode.

BBC reports:

Google says the landing strip could simply be a mark on the ground, a sign on a wall, or lines or arrows showing where the vehicle should be parked.

To detect which landing strip it has been parked at, the document says the car could activate a GPS (global positioning system) receiver to find its rough location and then use its sensors to detect trees, foliage or other known landmarks to determine its exact position.

Alternatively the filing says the car could read a QR code — the popular two-dimensional square barcode — which would have details about the landing strip’s location.

Telling the car precisely where it has been parked could be crucial to ensuring it knows where to go. […]

The patent will allow Google to restrict other companies from using a similar method to switch their cars between human-controlled and automatic modes. Alternatively it could charge them a fee for a licence.

Experts say driverless cars could become a commercial prospect sooner than most people believe.

Professor Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey’s department of computing told BBC, “We already have systems that park your cars for you and automatically brake — the next obvious step is to have cars take over the routine driving.”

Martin LaMonica writes for CNET that Google software engineer Sebastian Thrun said Google’s goal in developing the self-driving cars is to “help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time, and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”

Image by mac morrison, used under its Creative Commons license.

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