Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Intelligent Machines

Outta My Way! How Will We Translate Google’s Self-Driving Honks?

The company says algorithms in the car are designed to mimic the behavior of a “patient, seasoned driver.”

Google’s cuddly-looking robotic cars have taken a big step on the way to developing a harder edge: they’ve learned to honk.

In the Google Self-Driving Car Project’s latest monthly report (PDF), the company says it has been testing horn algorithms in its prototype cars for some time, playing the horn sound inside the cars as a way to make sure they’re not beeping in a way that would confuse other drivers. As the algorithm has improved, the cars have recently begun “broadcasting our car horn to the world.”

Google says its cars are meant to be “polite, considerate, and only honk when it makes driving safer for everyone.” 

That would represent a significant departure from how most humans use their horns. But it is also an important step in developing the capabilities of autonomous cars, and highlights the fact  that teaching robots to drive among humans is not about merely learning a set of rules—or even the edge cases when it’s okay to bend or ignore those rules. It is a highly cultural, intuitive process.

The horn is a terrific example of this. Sure, people use it to express many colorful variations of “Hey, watch it, jerk!” But some folks also use it to say hello to neighbors they recognize on the street. In China, there is an intricate etiquette around car horn use, which to a western ear would appear to be a near-constant wall of noise. Even regional differences in the U.S. can be pronounced (when have you ever been in New York City and not heard a chorus of blaring horns?).

The engineers at Google have learned firsthand how challenging it can be to imbue their cars with driving’s softer skills. One early version of the car was far too timid at stop signs, for example—it would sit, paralyzed, as human drivers who weren’t coming to a complete stop kept passing it by.

Such problems can be solved by dialing up how aggressive the cars are. They are now programmed to inch forward at stop signs and assert themselves. But that introduces the tricky issue of judgment into the cars’ decision-making. How aggressive is too aggressive? Should robotic cars maintain large following distances from other vehicles and risk having other cars jump in between? Or should they follow closely and risk making the driver in front nervous about a tailgater?

In Google’s report, the company says its cars have two kinds of beeps—“two short, quieter pips” for politely grabbing another driver’s attention, and a loud, long honk when the situation “requires more urgency.” That type of nuance shows that Google’s engineers are on the right track to mimicking how human drivers behave, even if they have a long way to go before they can blend in on the roadway.

(Read more: PC magazine, New York Times, "Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think," “Hidden Obstacles for Google’s Self-Driving Cars”)

Be the leader your company needs. Implement ethical AI.
Join us at EmTech Digital 2019.

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.