FREEWHEELING

The new Google patent for controlling your car without touching a thing

Modern cars are littered with a minefield of knobs and dials to distract drivers as they hurtle down highways. Many drivers are further distracted by looking down at smartphones doubling as GPS devices and stereos, dashboard touchscreens, and children in the backseat. Some nine people are killed in the US each day by distracted drivers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But this tech idea, just patented by Google, might be a way to keep drivers’ eyes on the road and their hands in control of their cars.

patent pic
Hands-free swiping in an exceedingly wide vehicle. (US Patent and Trademark Office)

The patent, awarded to Google on Jan. 27, explores ways to make car controls hands-free. Google envisions using multiple sensors dotted around a car’s interior, which can pick up different hand gestures made by the driver. The idea seems to be about making cars more intuitive to control.

The patent lays out a scenario in which a driver would swipe one hand down near a car window to open the window, and swipe a hand left near an air vent to lower the temperature. The gestures would allow drivers to keep at least one hand on the wheel, and wouldn’t require looking away from the road.

Swiping in different areas would trigger different actions.
Swiping in different areas would trigger different actions. (US Patent and Trademark Office)

Many tech patents are submitted without product plans. Google told Quartz in an email that it holds “patents on a variety of ideas—some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents.”

If the company did move forward with this idea, it might actually get some mileage. For example, Google could incorporate this technology into its own forthcoming self-driving cars. The patent says the vehicle in its diagrams is “configured to operate in an autonomous mode.” Whether Google’s patent might be incorporated into Google’s existing Android Auto setup isn’t clear, but the patent does say that this gesture system could be controlled by a “computing device.” The patent also leaves the door open to incorporating the idea into more or less any moving object, including, as the patent says: “a truck, a van, a semi-trailer truck, a motorcycle, a golf cart, an off-road vehicle, or a farm vehicle.”

One downside to Google’s proposition is having to remember what actions all the different gestures trigger. With contextual swiping, drivers might move their seats forward when they meant to turn down the air-conditioning, or turn up the heat when they meant to turn off the fans. This could lead to more distractions than fiddling with the presets on the radio ever could.

Other companies are also working on hands-free driving solutions: Voice commands (which don’t work terribly well) are now a standard feature on many cars, and one startup has a similar idea to Google’s in the works. This patent also covers using voice commands to control certain car functions. Microphones would listen for voice prompts in much the same way as Google Now works on Android devices. (It’s not clear if the driver would have to say “OK, Google” or “OK, late-model Honda Civic” to activate the controls.)

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