Google wins key patent for driverless car

Google won a U.S. patent for its autonomous-vehicle system, paving the way for us dumb meat pods to be eliminated from the driving process. The patent applies to how the system switches from person control to machine control using "smart" parking spaces.

According to the method laid out in the patent filing — which Google calls "Transitioning a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode" — a driver would be directed to a designated parking space, where the system would detect a "landing strip" that tells the car it's come to a stop. The system would then look for a "reference indicator," a QR code in Google's filings, that the system will use to report the car's location and receive instructions on what it should do next.

Disclosed are methods and devices for transitioning a mixed-mode autonomous vehicle from a human driven mode to an autonomously driven mode. Transitioning may include stopping a vehicle on a predefined landing strip and detecting a reference indicator. Based on the reference indicator, the vehicle may be able to know its exact position. Additionally, the vehicle may use the reference indictor to obtain an autonomous vehicle instruction via a URL. After the vehicle knows its precise location and has an autonomous vehicle instruction, it can operate in autonomous mode.

The patented system has little to do with how the cars actually drive themselves, but do give us a picture of how driverless cars might begin coexisting with traditional cars. Google says the "smart space" idea could be used initially to provide guided tours of tourist landmarks or direct models in need of service to repair shops.

Later on, they might allow airport parking lots to jam twice as many cars in — imagine a grid of tightly-packed autonomous cars rearranging itself to free one that's blocked in. Or, probably less likely, a smart space outside a bar that tells the car to perform a sobriety check, before letting you drive home (otherwise, it'll take you home).

Lots of questions yet to be answered — like how car location "apps" might look, or whether early adopters will see "car tours" as a compelling reason to pay the likely premium on a driverless car.