Google Car

TECH: Google Pioneers The Autonomous Car Horn

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The secret to autonomous cars succeeding isn’t going to be their technical capabilities of hands-free driving. What’s going to make them desirable is their ability to entertain their owners.

Seriously, Toyota’s autonomous drive chief Dr. Gil Pratt has been told by Akio Toyoda, the leader of Toyota worldwide, to keep self-driving cars fun. In Toyota’s case, that means maintaining the actual thrill of being behind the wheel when you want it and the safe passage to your destination when you don’t.

Over at Google, though, they’ve already accomplished something just as brilliant. Its self-driving car now has its own self-beeping horn. That’s right. The car will now sound its horn when it thinks it is necessary (contrary to what humans do).

It sounds humorous at first, but the horn is going to play an important warning function. As Bloomberg has reported, self-driving cars have racked up a crash rate double that of those with human drivers, according to a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The problem is these vehicles operate in a black and white world of binary numbers. There is no gray area, which means humans sometimes run into them because they expect the cars to behave like, well, humans.

According to Google’s May report on its self-driving car project, it has taught the cars’ software to recognize when honking may help. Google said that’s in situations such as when other drivers begin swerving into the cars’ lanes or backing out of a blind driveway. Heck, as many can attest, the horn works really well for drivers backing out of a driveway with a sightline of 500 yards or more.

Google said during testing it taught the vehicles (a mixture of Lexus RX 450h models and its own spunky little prototype) “to distinguish between potentially tricky situations and false positives, i.e. the difference between a car facing the wrong way during a three-point turn, and one that’s about to drive down the wrong side of the road.”

It must have been really annoying to conduct the tests on these cars because initially they only honked on the inside. Google said it didn’t want to distract others with wayward beeping. That’s in keeping with the company’s belief that the “human act of honking may be (performance) art, but our self-driving cars aim to be polite, considerate, and only honk when it makes driving safer for everyone.”

Where’s the fun in that? Don’t you want your car to recognize bad driving and announce it with a honk? For example, doesn’t the idiot driving in front of you 10 mph below the speed limit while on the phone deserve a honk? And what about people who daydream at traffic lights?

There is one flaw in the Google horn testing that needs to be remedied. Currently Google is only testing the self-driving vehicles in Phoenix, Ariz.; Kirkland, Wash,; Mountain View, Calif.; and Austin, Texas. Sure, people use their horns but for this project to succeed Google is going to have to head to Boston during rush hour or Manhattan anytime between 1 a.m. and midnight.

Only after it conquers those two battlegrounds of horn usage can it say it has accomplished its goal. In other words, Google has to forget about its horns being polite and considerate. Self-driving cars can’t be equipped with horns that mimic the Roadrunner’s cartoonish “meep, meep.” They need all the horsepower of a ship’s airhorn.

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Keith Griffin

Keith Griffin

Keith Griffin is an automotive columnist for the Las Vegas Review Journal and, as well as a reviewer for the Boston Globe, and - most importantly - dad to two great girls.