Troglodyte: Driverless vehicles 3

“They call it a landing strip. In my mind this is the same as having a sign over the road telling you where you are.”

The purpose of Project Troglodyte is to hunt for bad patents and to show what went wrong. For more information, see the  web page.


Transitioning a mixed-mode vehicle to autonomous mode

I recently run into this article. I browsed through the patent, here are a few comments. Note: this analysis was originally done before we developed the analysis template so the approach differs a little from the rest.

Figure 1.



This patent seems to describe a way of reading a reference indicator (e.g. a marking in the road) and using this info to both determine the exact location of the car and to retrieve data that the indicator points to. Basically there would be a QR code in the road at some location, which is possibly a place where the vehicle stops. They call it a landing strip. In my mind this is the same as having a sign over the road telling you where you are. What about snow and ice? It is difficult to read the QR code if it is under snow. This may have been overlooked as all the inventors seem to be from California, maybe Mountain View, and according to wikipedia snow isn’t really a big problem there. But to be fair, they do indicate that using RF technologies could be used to implement the same functionality. It can, but getting the same location accuracy would be more challenging.

Is there any harm in this patent being granted? There might be if they manage to push through the idea that a computer reading road signs and taking actions based on that is now a google monopoly. It might be difficult for Google or anyone else to push through such a wide interpretation of this patent but who has the money to challenge them?

While the ideas are somewhat useful they are not that innovative. There can be several reasons for this, one is that the best parts of the application needed to be dropped during the examination (due to prior art) by the patent office but they decided to go through with it anyway. A more cynical view might be that just before the filing date someone decided that the driverless car thing might go forward and we need to patent something stat. To be complete it is worth mentioning that I may just have fallen for the trap that I have seen many times before: things are much more obvious after someone has written them down.



As usual the description includes a lot of stuff that is already known or otherwise obvious, for example about a page is used to describe the computer system that might be running the logic needed to use the indicators. I’m not very skilled in the art of autonomous vehicles but my feeling is that the description didn’t really include anything that the public would benefit from. This is mainly because reading a QR code or other indicator is exactly analogous to what one does when reading a sign with location information. Adding the use of an url to retrieve instructions doesn’t really make a difference in the inventiveness department. I’m left wondering what was the original idea that they invented and at what point was it removed from the patent? Also, the title and the description don’t really match. While this is nine kinds of bad when writing a school assignment it might be good for a patent (if you are the inventor) as it is more difficult for the competitors to find the information.

This patent might not be that difficult to bypass. In the short term just record the orientation and location of many road signs and use the vehicle’s approximate location from GPS or sensors to check which sign it is and then retrieve this info from a database.



If the QR code (indicator) includes position and orientation (of the indicator) a camera can be used to get a very accurate position, “easily” with in millimeters related to the indicator. This could be useful in a few situations:

  • There is no GPS coverage
  • The GPS location accuracy is not enough to resolve the location ambiguity due to say roads being on top of each other. This can usually be deduced from the path history, but it is good to have some redundancy, if there is reboot or something.
  • On a bridge, tunnel or similar location a Lidar or radar may not have enough information as the environment is completely built or “empty”
  • The environment has been changed beyond recognition due to construction etc. I have understood that the google approach uses prior knowledge of the environment to determine the location by comparing sensor info to database. It might be that if the road has been closed for changes that the environment, not to mention road location has changed drastically. In such a case the QR code could have info on how to cross the changed part of the road until the database has been updated by the passing vehicles.

It looks like these ideas predate the lidar approach but this has been filed on May, 2011 (now is 27 July, 2012) and as long as I know google’s lidar tech using Prius is older than that. So they may have been thinking about one of the bullets above where it would be quite handy say if there is a construction in a tunnel and vehicles need to be told what to do. It is worth noting that inertial sensors can be used for fairly accurate guidance for a short while and even dead reckoning is likely good enough to avoid a couple of cones and a steamroller if it is in a designated area. Doesn’t have much to do with transitioning to autonomous mode though.

After reading the claims I have two things in my mind:

  1. I can recognize the description from the claims, which is nice and not always the case
  2. If they manage to get another patent where they define wetware to be a computer I will need to start paying licensing fees every time I drive a car.