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How Google's Driverless Car Detects Aggressive Drivers

It can sense and avoid reckless, road raging jerks who swerve, honk excessively, and don't use turn signals.
Screengrab: Google

Driverless cars will be safer than regular ol' manned automobiles because they don't drive recklessly. The same cannot be said of humans, who are nothing if not reckless drivers. But a new patent request from Google suggests that the company has figured out a way for its autonomous cars to deal with aggressive drivers.

With several countries slated to put autonomous vehicles on public roads within the next couple years, driverless cars are going to need to be able to deal with jerks who weave between lanes, speed, and are otherwise unsafe.


In a US patent request, Google says it's figured out how its cars will detect those with road rage, and then adjust its driving modes to be safer.

It's not just speeders. There's a whole bunch of different inputs that the sensors baked into Google's driverless vehicles will be able to detect, that will ultimately decide whether another, manned car is a threat or not.

The tech giant says its cars will be able to recognize other vehicles that are "exceeding a speed limit, driving fast for given road conditions, excessive lane changing without cause, failing to signal intent to pass another vehicle, tailgating another vehicle, using the horn excessively, and flashing headlights excessively at oncoming traffic."

The car will also be able to detect other vehicles' sizes and will be able to make a value judgment about what's more of a threat, given two or more reckless drivers. A reckless motorcycle, for instance, might be less of a threat than a reckless semi truck, so the car would stay further away from the truck. (Presumably, one hopes, without further endangering the motorcycle).

There are a few implications of this sort of technology. For one thing, if driverless cars are ever going to work well on existing roads with existing drivers, this sort of tech is absolutely vital.

Driverless cars are better than us in that they don't get distracted and generally follow the rules of the road, but human drivers have a small advantage in that we're able to look at a driver and see if he or she is on a cellphone, or eating, or fighting with someone else in the car, or reading a newspaper. (Seriously, what are you thinking?)

We can pay attention to a truck that's been swerving for 10 minutes or a guy who seems like he might be drunk, and avoid them to the best of our ability. That's what Google is trying to approximate here—our ability to sense and avoid—with this technology.

But then, if Google's driverless cars are always connected and are able to detect aggressive drivers, what's keeping the company from then alerting law enforcement or a professional driver's employer? Those "How's My Driving" bumper stickers that everyone ignores (everyone ignores those, right?) might soon become obsolete as a driver surveillance method. Who would need them, when driverless cars can detect everyone who isn't driving safely, automatically?