Next time you're jammed in gridlock and somebody starts off a chorus of aggravating honks, it mightn't be a frustrated human driver leaning on the horn. Google engineers have been training the company's autonomous vehicles to pick up on impending collisions and use the horn as a tool to improve road safety, for human and robotic drivers alike.
It's something that might have come in handy when an autonomous Lexus drove itself into the side of a bus in February, but in its latest monthly self-driving car report Google says its goal is to teach its cars to honk like a "patient, seasoned driver." Whether that is a good thing or not is up for debate, but it does claim the cars will only sound the horn when it makes the roads safer for everyone.
The engineers have taught the cars to discern between real, dangerous scenarios, and false positives. So it will know if an oncoming car has drifted into your lane and is about to plow right into you, or if a car up ahead is simply performing a three-point-turn (some drivers might reach for the horn in this situation anyway).
The team achieved this by riding along with the car and having the horn play only inside the vehicle when there was a chance of collision. The engineers took note of each time the beep was a reaction a patient, seasoned driver might have and fine-tuned the software to improve the vehicle's road etiquette.
After enough tweaking, the team finally let the horn rip outside the car. It has even fitted the vehicle with different types of honks for different degrees of danger. So if a vehicle is backing up slowly, Google's car might decide that a gentle little beep-beep will suffice. Whereas if there is immediate, serious danger, the car will opt for a sustained, blaring horn instead.
Some of Google's self-driving cars are electric, so those nearby won't receive the same audible warning as if it was a gasoline engine approaching. As a way of addressing this, the company has already designed the vehicle to make an artificial hum as it roams the streets, and is now letting it toot-toot to boot.