Google’s Driverless Cars Might Not Be So Autonomous After All

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We may be just a few short years away from driverless cars taking over the road, according to predictions, at least, and the whole idea of it is well, kind of frightening. While I agree computers are way better at some things than us, I don’t think driving is one of those skills. And apparently Google is reevaluating its trust in completely autonomous vehicles, too. A recent patent filed by the company shows an auto-pilot switch that lets drivers regain control immediately in an emergency—a concept that is backpedaling from earlier models which ran without any human intervention.

Google refers to this new addition as “arm the chauffer.” It’s pretty much a fancy term for an arm on the steering wheel that could be pulled to engage the car’s self-driving mode. The catch is, the car doesn’t just switch modes instantaneously—the system would do a check to see whether it’s ready and able to take control from the driver. If it isn’t, the driver might see a “Not Available” light on the dash. Otherwise, the driver would see a “Ready” light, at which point you can safely remove your hands and feet from the wheel and pedals. Google’s self-driving cars would also be equipped with various touch sensitive sensors to help communicate to the computer that the driver would like to take control. Here’s how Google predicts an emergency situation would go down:

If the passenger identifies an emergency situation, the passenger may take control of the vehicle immediately. For example, passenger may see an obstacle which computer has not identified, such as a bicyclist or road construction. Without first disarming computer, passenger may grip the steering wheel to return computer to “ready mode” as shown in FIG. 9. The impact of passenger’s hand or hands on steering wheel may be received by the various touch sensitive input apparatuses of steering wheel. Computer may receive this information, determine that the passenger would like to take control, and return to ready mode. This allows the user to feel confident that he or she may take control of vehicle instantaneously.


Much of the patent focused on the operation of these lights and sensors, but the patent’s text does give some interesting insight into how Google actually sees its driverless cars working in the future (which has so far been up in the air). Google hasn’t said much about how this patent would fit into their overall strategy for its driverless cars, but if they did follow through with this concept, I’d be interested to see if Google eliminates pedals and wheels entirely, like they previously suggested. And if that’s the case, I’m not so sure I’d want to get in a vehicle with no pedals or wheels.

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