Google has won the patent for Transitioning a Mixed-mode Vehicle to Autonomous Mode. Roughly translated into plain English, this is a method to switch a car from human-controlled mode to a self-controlled mode (autonomous mode).
The vehicle first identifies a "landing strip" which feeds data to the vehicle such as telling it where it can stop, or simply telling it to move forward 10 meters. A second set of sensors are used to detect the vehicles surroundings such as trees, lampposts or other known landmarks. The patent says the landing strip could be nothing more than a marking on the road, although the RF cellular connections seem a much more viable option.
The potential for the technology is clearly spelled out. "The autonomous vehicle may be used as a virtual tour guide of Millennium Park in Chicago," the patent states. "In the example embodiment, the vehicle may have an instruction to drive to the Cloud Gate (Silver Bean) sculpture at Millennium Park. When the vehicle arrives, the autonomous instruction may tell it to wait in the location for a predetermined amount of time, for example 5 minutes. The instruction may then direct the vehicle to drive to the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park and again wait for 5 minutes. Next, the instruction may tell the vehicle to drive to the Ice Rink at Millennium Park and wait for another predetermined amount of time. Finally, the vehicle instruction may tell the vehicle to return to its starting position."
Google has been testing autonomous vehicles using a fleet of modified Toyota Prius and Audi TT models for the past couple of years. They have completed more than 160,000 miles so far, with more than 1,000 miles of these done in autonomous mode. Despite the development being a well known fact, the search giant had chosen to keep this new patent under wraps until it was finalised.
This technology is another step in the right direction to full autonomous vehicles and when you put this technology together with Google maps, you can begin to imagine the potential for the future.