Google's Self-Driving Car Now Knows When To Honk Its Horn

One of Google's self-driving car prototypes. Google
Robin Andrews 07 Jun 2016, 10:14

Google have released their latest monthly report on the antics of their self-driving car, and it appears to include a rather curious note on appropriate honking. Under a section entitled “Down with the tyrannical horn,” the engineers behind the futuristic vehicles explain how they are trying to teach their autonomous vehicle to honk politely and only when necessary.

“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,” they note, before explaining that they are continually trying to improve what they refer to as their “honking algorithms.”

Google’s self-driving car is, generally speaking, doing pretty well. Apart from crashing incredibly slowly into a bus, and having to swerve out of the way of a broom-wielding woman chasing a duck across a road in a wheelchair, there haven’t been any major incidents that may have threatened to derail the program.

As noted by the report, their autonomous cars have driven themselves 2.64 million kilometers (1.64 million miles) since 2009. Advanced features have been added incrementally, and the range of the vehicles has increased to sites outside of the original testing ground at Mountain View in California, including Austin (Texas), Phoenix (Arizona), and Kirkland (Washington State).

The newest feature involves the car’s autonomous use of its horn, which the engineers have allowed to honk if its 360° visual software thinks that there is a perceived or potential threat that could be alleviated by doing so. For example, it would give a little toot if it was backing out of a blind alleyway.

Initially, passengers in the car made notes as to whether or not the honking was indeed appropriate, which was kept internal to the vehicle. Other drivers in different vehicles couldn’t hear the Google car’s beeping at this point, in case it used it with sudden reckless abandon and bemused them to the point of distraction, or perhaps profound irritation.

As it appeared to be quickly honing its honking etiquette, the engineers allowed its horn to be broadcast to the wider world; to date, there appears to have been no incidences of road rage or highly erroneous honking. It can even use different kinds of honks depending on what may be required for the situation unfolding around it.

Far from its most frequent use by humans as an “instrument of torture,” as one 1983 essay once opined, Google’s self-driving car shouldn’t ever go off-piste and use its horn for any malicious purpose. So not only is its growing fleet of autonomous vehicles theoretically able to save up to 35,000 lives every single year by taking driving out of the hands of reckless humans, but each of these curious little cars are likely to be thoroughly polite and courteous to boot.

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