Google Self Driving Cars Get Jumpstart from IBM Patents

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This past October, an Official Google Blog post, What we’re driving at, introduced Google’s efforts to bring self-driving cars to the world. The post told us:

So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard.

They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it around Lake Tahoe.

All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.

We were told about some of the technology and the technicians behind these cars, and the safety considerations involved in the efforts, as well as the potential of this effort to reduce accidents significantly as well as increasing car-sharing.

Last October and again last week, the US patent office recorded the assignment of a good number of granted and pending patents from IBM on a wide range of topics, and I’m making my way through them.

Many of those involved making automobiles smarter and safer and may have addressed a number of the issues that need to be solved before self-driving cars may progress from Google research project to consumer use.

I thought they were interesting enough to share, and have provided links to the patents themselves if you want to take a deeper look at the technologies involved.

Warning Sensors for Objects on Vehicles

Ok, I’m going to start with what seems to be the silliest of the patents and get it out of the way first.

A screenshot from the patent showing the locations of sensors on a car, and a beverage left atop the car.

Ever place a drink on top of your car so that you can unlock a door? Ever forget about that drink, and drive off with it still on top of your car? This patent aims at solving that problem.

System and method for sensing objects on surface of vehicle
Filed August 31, 1999
Granted December 19, 2000

Pre-Configured Routes

A user of this navigation system can enter information about the first few navigation points on a journey, and if the navigation system recognizes those as part of a known route, it will automatically determine the destination, and the rest of the route to follow.

Autonomous destination determination
Filed December 3, 2007
Granted August 26, 2008

Driver Safety

A system that determines information about the state of a driver, such as whether or not the driver might be sleepy or distracted, and make take steps to make things safer.

For instance, if the driver is determined to be somewhat distracted, it might block an incoming phone call when it recognizes that the driver is braking. If the driver is drowsy, it might ask questions of the driver or play a word game to help keep the driver awake and alert.

Driver safety manager
Filed February 29, 2004
Granted March 25, 2008

Driver Warning Grid

Cars would include an array of sensors and wireless systems so that information about them could be shared with other vehicles’ drivers. For instance, if a car ahead starts braking hard, a car behind it would be warned. Warnings about vehicles traveling very slowly ahead could also be transmitted.

An image from the patent showing transmission zones around three cars, showing their range of information sharing.

Dynamic vehicle grid infrastructure to allow vehicles to sense and respond to traffic conditions
Filed April 28, 2006
Granted September 16, 2008
Dynamic vehicle grid infrastructure to allow vehicles to sense and respond to traffic conditions
Filed June 24, 2008
Granted August 24, 2010

Remote Vehicle Control

A monitor inside of a vehicle can detect events related to the vehicle, such as speeding, operating in a prohibited area, or during a specific time frame. It could send a message wirelessly, and an action might be taken in response via an in-vehicle controller.

Those actions might include turning off the engine, limiting the speed of the vehicle speed, and possibly locking the vehicle doors for purposes such as terminating a pursuit or enforcing legal sentences and operator restrictions, or controlling fleet vehicle operations.

Location-based intelligent remote vehicle function control
Filed November 7, 2002
Granted March 18, 2008

Controlling Access and Use of Vehicles

A certain limitation could be set upon the use of vehicles involving when and under what circumstances they might be driven. For example, a manager of a fleet of trucks would want to ensure how and when and by whom those trucks are driven.

There may be limitations on when young drivers can drive (daylight hours only, for instance), or other restrictions or limitations for other drivers. This system would also work to keep unauthorized drivers from driving the vehicle.

Limiting and controlling motor vehicle operation functions enabled for each of a group of drivers of the vehicle
Filed September 16, 2004
Granted February 5, 2008

Limiting Wireless Communications Based upon Speed of Travel

Imagine your phone not letting you make or receive calls or text messages or check emails when it’s traveling at a certain speed. All three patents below address this problem. In the first two, if you stop for a traffic light or stop sign or pullover, those features may be enabled. Once a certain speed is met, those features may become unavailable.

A flowchart from the patent showing different impacts on communications devices based upon speeds that cars are traveling at.

Managing features available on a portable communication device based on a travel speed detected by the portable communication device
Filed July 28, 2005
Granted May 6, 2008
Managing features available on a portable communication device based on a travel speed detected by the portable communication device
Filed February 18, 2008
Granted February 1, 2011

System for controlling wireless communications from a moving vehicle
Filed November 1, 2004
Granted March 6, 2007

Limiting Wireless Communications Based Upon Unsafe Conditions

Communication devices might be disabled in response to vehicle conditions such as sudden changes in velocity or acceleration, and rapid changes in direction. Or by laws of certain locations regarding the usage of mobile devices in vehicles. Other conditions might include weather, available light, and traffic density.

Method and system for preventing unsafe communication device usage in a vehicle
Filed November 16, 2000
Granted December 31, 2002

Using Real Time Traffic Data

Real-time traffic information could be used to identify the best or fastest route to travel.

Method and apparatus for end-to-end travel time estimation using dynamic traffic data
Filed February 7, 2005
Granted June 26, 2007

Displaying Navigation Information

A system for displaying navigation information that takes into account how distracted a driver might be. That navigation information might not be displayed if a certain “driver attention threshold” is exceeded.

Method and apparatus for displaying information in a vehicle
Filed September 14, 2000
Granted March 12, 2002

Displaying Traffic Signal Information

An in-car display might show information about traffic signals and stop signs ahead, which could be useful on a foggy day or when the signals might be around a curve or hidden by a rise and fall in a roadway ahead.

Method and apparatus for presenting traffic information in a vehicle
Filed January 28, 1999
Granted August 27, 2002

Information via GPS about the Legality of Devices in Cars

In some places, the in-car operation of things like radar detectors, cellular telephones, and DVD players may be legal, and it others they may not be. The system described in the following patent would help provide local law information about whether or not it’s legal to operate those devices.

Method and system to alert user of local law via the Global Positioning System (GPS)
Filed June 6, 2008
Granted April 7, 2009

Detecting Brake Lights

Photosensors on the front of your car might detect when brake lights are illuminated in front of them, and calculate their distance. Within a certain distance, the brake lights of the car with the photosensors might have their brake light illuminate, without actually activating the brakes, to give a warning to the car behind.

Method and system for enhanced system automotive brake light control
Filed July 5, 2000
Granted January 1, 2002

Sending Information between Vehicles

Lane changes and turns aren’t always communicated well by drivers using turn signals or brake lights. Sensors that can determine things like whether a car’s steering wheel is being turned for a lane change might be communicated to cars behind it directly or in adjacent lanes to provide a warning.

A screenshot from the patent showing a transmitter at the back of one car, and a receiver at the front, and some information about the kinds of signals that might be sent from one car to the other.

Method and system for sending events between vehicles
Filed May 9, 2006
Granted October 28, 2008

System for sending events between vehicles
Filed July 15, 2008
Granted October 26, 2010

Safe Following Distances and Recording Potential Accidents

The system in the following patent calculates a safe following distance based upon things like speed, weight, and/or safe braking range values, and turns on a recorder if the distance becomes unsafe.

Method, system, and computer program product for determining and reporting tailgating incidents
Filed June 6, 2005
Granted February 5, 2008
Method, system, and computer program product for determining and reporting tailgating incidents
Filed May 2, 2007
Granted November 4, 2008
Method, system, and computer program product for determining and reporting tailgating incidents
Filed November 19, 2007
Granted February 3, 2009

Distance Tracking

Light beams might be projected to calculate distances to objects in front of or behind a vehicle. These objects could include things like parking lot walls.

Proximity indicating system
Filed June 17, 1999
Granted March 20, 2001

Making Wireless Devices Work Through Onboard Computers

A phone or other device that uses a wireless transceiver may be set up to be used through an onboard system on a vehicle so that its use could be limited or disabled in certain situations.

Safe use of electronic devices in an automobile
Filed January 16, 2002
Granted February 28, 2006

Communicating Automotive Safety Information

Like a number of the other patents included in this post, this patent aims at considering unsafe conditions concerning the surrounding environment, a vehicle and its driver, and communicating that information to surrounding vehicles to enable them to take action, such as slowing down. This one includes information about safety features on other cars and possible problems with those vehicles themselves.

System and method for performing interventions in cars using communicated automotive information
Filed January 6, 2006
Granted February 3, 2009

Predicting Destinations Based upon Travel Patterns and Behavior

The following patents describe how a navigation system might be used to predict a destination based upon past journeys. A system like this might be used with real-time route information to help find alternative routes to a projected destination, though the patents don’t spell that out.

An image from the patent possible destinations based upon early route decisions.

Systems and Methods for Generating Pattern Keys for Use in Navigation Systems to Predict User Destinations
Filed January 19, 2009
Granted October 1, 2009
Systems and methods for generating pattern keys for use in navigation systems to predict user destinations
Filed March 31, 2008
Published February 3, 2009

Avoiding Wireless Phone Distractions

This system tracks whether or not a wireless phone communication is taking place in a vehicle. If the vehicle exceeds a certain speed when such communication is going on, information about the communication might be sent to the telecommunication service provider about circumstances surrounding the call, such as the time it started and ended, and possibly the position of the vehicle.

The idea is to provide evidence about whether or not a wireless call might have been taking place at the time of an accident.

System for transmitting to a wireless service provider physical information related to a moving vehicle during a wireless communication
Filed November 1, 2004
Granted December 26, 2006

Distant Monitoring System

This monitoring system might enable someone to track a vehicle’s location and speed. The location could be used to find speed limits at that location and other relevant information.

If the vehicle exceeds the speed limit, a warning could be sent to the driver by a visual or audio signal, inform “an authority agency” about the speed, and log information about the “excessive speeding condition.” Speed could be monitored by the use of GPS or by the vehicle’s speedometer or by both.

Telematic parametric speed metering system
Filed March 30, 2006
Granted May 20, 2008
Telematic parametric speed metering system
Filed February 19, 2008
Granted February 2, 2010
Telematic parametric speed metering system
Filed February 27, 2008
Granted August 24, 2010

An Updated Driver Interface

A touch-based system for controlling things like windows, heating and airconditioning, door locks, and more, might use a touch gesture-based system that might also include controls based upon speech and upon facial gesture recognition.

An screenshotfrom the patent showing an example steering wheel touchscreen, some example gestures, and more infomation about other control features.

Touch gesture based interface for motor vehicle
Filed August 31, 2004
Granted November 13, 2007

Collision Avoidance Based Upon Communications between Cars

The following describes a collision-avoidance system using “underutilized processors” found in airbag deployment systems. This system would avoid using a radar or GPS to become alert of the possibility of a collision, and would instead depend upon local information involving communications from sensors in one vehicle to sensors in another.

A screenshot showing a streetview with a pending collision and cars in multiple lanes being warned by this collision warning system.

Vehicle collision avoidance system enhancement using in-car air bag deployment system
Filed July 21, 2005
Granted February 12, 2008

Drawbrige Opening Timing

Not sure that I remember the last time that I was on a road with a drawbridge, but the following patent tracks things like the movements of ships and the opening and closing of drawbridges so that the operator of a drawbridge can track both the movements of ships and of cars that might cross the bridge and know the optimal time to open the bridge.

Vehicle scheduling and collision avoidance system using time multiplexed global positioning system
Filed January 28, 1999
Granted February 6, 2001

Keeping Safe Distances

Keeping a safe distance from the cars in front of you and behind you is one of the challenges of driving. Tracking the cars that might be in lanes adjacent to yours is important as well. The following describes a process to track the speed of vehicles in the driving environment around you, provide warnings, and possibly change the speed of your car.

Vehicle warning system and method based on speed differential
Filed April 25, 2000
Granted January 8, 2002

Unattended Children

If a child is left unattended in a safety seat of a vehicle, the sensor system described in the following three patents activates an alarm and will unlock doors and roll down windows.

Wireless system to detect presence of child in a baby car seat
Filed August 1, 2005
Granted January 22, 2008
Wireless system provided in a vehicle to detect presence of child in a baby car seat
Filed August 7, 2007
Granted February 10, 2009
Wireless system to detect presence of child in a baby car seat
Filed August 26, 2008
Granted June 8, 2010

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18 thoughts on “Google Self Driving Cars Get Jumpstart from IBM Patents”

  1. Hi Andri,

    It is somewhat of a surprise. IBM has been involved in a pretty wide range of endeavors for a long time. I wasn’t aware of all the things that they’ve done when it comes to these kinds of car safety patents.

    I don’t know how much of what they’ve done has actually been developed, but a lot of the things above could make driving considerably safer. If Google were to help a lot of these innovations get into cars that the average consumer could afford, it could potentially save a lot of lives. I’d love to see that.

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    Google’s seems to be on quite a spending spree when it comes to purchase patents developed by other companies.

    Last October, Google recorded the assignment of 51 patents from IBM, and last week another 57. It’s a significant amount, and when I went through them, I noticed a good number involved vehicles, a significant amount of them focused upon video, and the remainder were a real mix. There are about 7 of them that I would call search related, and I need to spend more time with those.

    But I found myself fascinated with the vehicle patents because it’s something that seems so outlandish for Google to tackle. I mean, self driving cars. Who would have expected that just a few years ago. They aren’t SEO, but they tell us something about Google, and about the people who run it that they would take on something that seems to be such a pipedream and take some bold steps to work towards making it happen.

  3. It’s not April 1st is it?
    I know better than to say that this is impossible but surely there are better things that need investing in at the moment?

    Now sat navs seemed like great technology but they don’t cope with roadworks and diversions do they?

  4. Interesting. Great article you’ve got here. The one that captures the attention is the newly published kinds of car safety patents, because not all produce this kind of great ideas. thanks for the share.

  5. I remember when this information first came out. Although Google is spending a ton of money, their efforts to diversify the industries they are in is remarkable and brilliant. This project in particular brings Google great PR as well.

  6. Hi Karen,

    That sounds a little like my reaction when I first heard about Google’s self driving cars. There are a number of videos of the self driving cars in action, and according to the Google blog post announcing them, the cars have put more than 140,000 miles on public roadways, so I’m not sure that we can say the idea is impossible.

    Many of the patents described above that monitor the locations of other cars and their status don’t rely upon satellite navigation, and stress that point. Instead they focus upon communications from one car to another, visual sensors that can see in all directions around them, and so on. There’s some use of GPS but there’s also a diversity of other approaches that can work together in case there’s a failure in any one type of technology.

  7. Hi Andrew,

    Thanks. Most of the patents described above are ones that focus upon safety and can be used on cars that still require drivers. It would be great to see these types of innovations introduced to roadways even if we are still the ones controlling our vehicles.

  8. Hi Kentaro,

    I was surprised when I heard about Google’s efforts to make driverless cars, not only because it’s something that’s on the outlandish side, but also because it seems so far removed from what search engines do. There’s positive PR to be gained, but I wonder how much it’s actually helped them because it isn’t related to what we usually think about when we think about “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible and useful.” A little like Cadillac offering a pickup truck. 🙂

  9. I see what you mean Bill but I just think there would be for too many variables for this kind of thing to work.It only takes one car to get out of sync ( technology does break down doesn’t it and that would be my car BTW ha ha ) and then the other cars would be picking up all the wrong kinds of sensors and signals and so on.

    Anyway.. I’m sure they are having fun playing around with the idea. Bless em all I say.. it’s keeps them occcupied and happy. 🙂

    “oohh she’s going left… oh no she changed her mind at the last minute darn her! And now I’m going in completely the wrong direction because she changed her mind” …

    a woman’s perogative I guess lol

  10. Interesting.. i think google is slightly coming away from being a search engine only. I cannot see these innovations being used in any near future.

  11. Hi Karen,

    That’s a concern that I have. I’m sure that I would have problems sitting behind a steering wheel, and having no control over where my car might decide to go next.

  12. Hi John,

    It’s probably not a bad idea for Google to diversify somewhat, and work on things outside of search.

    We may not see self-driving cars on the roadways anytime in the near future, but if Google could build upon some of the ideas in the patents that I listed above and make driving much safer, I’d love to see that.

  13. Yeah I could see this technology coming when GPS became prevalent. Only thing I could see about it is for example, what if your local road crew was going to shut down a certain portion of road for a day to do repairs? You know the old detour sign thing. Hopefully my auto-piloted car will be able to see that ahead of time and not run through it and kill a bunch of crew workers. Not to mention me. Because of those types of variables we are a long way away from this materializing. But it makes for interesting imagination…:)

  14. Hi Kevin,

    I do believe that the technology involved is capable of handing detours and avoiding road crews doing construction work. Though that kind of thing concerns me too.

    When local road crews in my town are repainting markings on roads, they tend to do that at night, and they do a terrible job of warning drivers – there aren’t any warnings on the streets a number of feet before them – though they do put out cones and a warning light right by where they are working. I’m not sure how well a self drving car would handle that kind of situation.

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