Self-driving cars are moving ever closer to becoming a reality, but questions remain about how they will handle unusual situations. Google may have found a solution for one common problem by developing a system for, "detecting and responding to emergency vehicles," according to a recently published patent.
The patent, which was obtained in 2014 but not published until September 2016, shows that the tech giant has developed a method of detecting the red and blue lights that emergency vehicles use. The computer then uses the spacing of the the lights to determine what kind of vehicle they belong to and detects whether or not the lights are flashing. It then determines the correct response to the flashing lights, including yielding to the emergency vehicle by slowing down or stopping.
This breakthrough has major implications for the future of self-driving cars. Although they are unlikely to violate traffic laws in most conditions, being able to pull over to let a fire truck or ambulance pass is essential. They also must respond appropriately on the rare occasion that they are pulled over by a police officer, although that may become more of an issue when they're actually available to consumers. These duties were previously handled by human test drivers.
The programming involved in developing appropriate responses is likely to be quite complex, given the numerous situations in which a car might encounter emergency vehicles. It would be rather inconvenient for your car to pull over every time you passed a police officer stopping someone else. The car also must be able to find a safe location to stop where it won't hit any objects or block other traffic. They may also have to filter out distractions, such as illegal red and blue lights that some people add to their cars.
Google's new development is just one more step on the road to truly autonomous cars, which it has been working on for years. These cars are already being tested on the roads in and around Mountain View, California and have an excellent track record so far. While many have been involved in crashes, most were caused by other drivers rear-ending the intelligent car. The first crash caused by one of Google's self-driving cars occurred in February 2016, when one of the cars crashed into a bus while changing lanes. Only minor damage occurred. According to Engadget, the crash was caused by the car's software calculating that the bus would slow down enough for it to enter the center lane, and the test driver agreeing with that assessment. Unfortunately, the bus driver did not.
Despite that incident, Google's autonomous vehicles have been showing remarkable safety and success. With this new patent, you may have your own self-driving car sooner than you think.