self-driving car

Illustration of a Google self-driving car knowing when to honk its own horn. Image courtesy Google.

Humans communicate largely with voices, and vehicles via horns. According to recent reports, Google’s self-driving cars will know how to toot their own horns.

Chris Ziegler writes for The Verge that Google has been training its self-driving cars to honk when the situation requires it.

Google puts out a monthly report on the status of its self-driving vehicles program, and in the most recent one noted that the cars have been taught to honk in different ways depending on the situation, from a couple of short, friendly honks to a loud, sustained honk in a more urgent situation.

Marco della Cava, writing for USA Today about this development, said Google’s goal is to get its cars to honk their horns like a “patient, seasoned driver.” The mega company hopes its vehicles will eventually know how to anticipate how drivers of other vehicles will respond to the self-driving cars beeping in various scenarios. Della Cava cautioned:

Road rage enters uncharted territory when there’s technically no driver to get mad at.

Google Cars’ ‘Voice’

Google said that in addition to its cars’ horns, the cars make a distinctive sound, unlike the purr or revving of combustion engines. A car’s “voice” is important to alert people with visual impairments and also bicyclists and pedestrians that a car is coming to prevent accidents, especially when they are crossing a street or changing lanes. The sound imitates things about the sounds of more traditional cars, like an increasing pitch when it accelerates and a decreasing pitch when it slows down.

Google searched far and wide for inspiration for a distinctive voice, looking to other vehicles and transportation modalities, electronic consumer products, ambient art sculptures, and even the sound of an Orca whale. Google hopes the sounds it has come up with jibes with the friendly and futuristic look of its cars.

Ziegler summed it up by saying:

Ironically, actual human drivers mostly honk at completely inappropriate times — at least here in New York City — so a polite, considered beep from a self-driving car would be a welcome improvement.

Programming for City Traffic?

Regarding New York City, in one comment to The Verge’s piece, badasscat1 writes that most horn honking in that city takes place when one driver on a narrow street blocks traffic by double-parking, or a driver is stopped at a green light while texting, or a driver rushes to beat a red light and then blocks the intersection.

This commenter, saying that such drivers will not change what they are doing unless people start honking at them, wonders if Google’s autonomous vehicles will honk in such situations. “Is there, for example, a threshold of waiting at a green light before the car realizes the driver in front is paying no attention whatsoever?”