Google teaches driverless cars to honk (so in Hong Kong they’ll fit right in)

Electric cars, being virtually silent, need to let people know they are coming, Google engineers reason; unlike many human drivers they’ll be taught to toot their horns politely, considerately and safely

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 June, 2016, 12:18pm

Google’s self-driving cars are getting some attitude. Company engineers have been working on teaching their autonomous vehicles the subtle – and often obnoxious – art of honking, according to Google’s May self-driving car report.

The innovation makes sense. After all, while Google’s 24 self-driving Lexus SUV fleet are hybrid machines with a modicum of engine noise, Google’s growing gaggle of 34 pod-like prototypes are all-electric machines that barely whisper their presence. Sometimes, a short toot of the horn is required to let people know they’re coming.

In its report, Google notes that for the past months engineers have programmed the car’s computer brain to understand which road situations might require a toot, sometimes discreet and sometimes determined.

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“Our self-driving cars aim to be polite, considerate, and only honk when it makes driving safer for everyone,” the report says. “During testing, we taught our vehicles 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.”

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At first, the car sounded its horn – either two short blips for a friendly warning, or a long blast for an urgent one – inside the vehicles, so engineers riding on board could note whether the sound was made appropriately. Then the cars were given the green light to honk away at the world – or at least to motorists at its several US testing grounds.

“Our goal is to teach our cars to honk like a patient, seasoned driver,” the report says. “As we become more experienced honkers, we hope our cars will also be able to predict how other drivers respond to a beep in different situations”.

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There was no word on how motorists in other cars might react to a honk coming from a car carrying a passenger with a nose buried in a book. Road rage enters uncharted territory when there’s technically no driver to get mad at.

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Other news in the report includes the fact that on May 4, a Google self-driving prototype ran into a road divider at 14km/h and sustained minor damage. The car was not at fault, however, because at the time it was being manually driven by a Google employee.

The same day, Google announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler in Detroit to have the carmaker build 100 Pacifica mini-vans to specifications that will accommodate Google’s array of autonomous car tech, such as radar, laser and cameras.

The programme will allow Google to more rapidly expand its testing programme beyond its existing four cities. To date, Google Lexus SUVs and prototypes have logged more than 2.5 million kilometres over the past seven years, with a current testing pace of up to 24,000 kilometres a week.