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'Apple Car' may recognize hand signals from people directing traffic

A Project Titan Lexus with a LIDAR array.

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Apple is researching how to make a future "Apple Car" correctly recognize and respond to a person directing traffic at the site of an accident, or a parking attendant telling you which way to go.

Apple may still be refusing to confirm that it plans to make a car, but the torrent of evidence for one continues with three newly granted patents, including one about reacting to a human who is directing traffic.

"Traffic direction gesture recognition," is concerned with the sensors in an "Apple Car," and how data from them is correctly interpreted in certain situations.

"Vehicle safety improvements and the rise of interest in automated navigation and control of vehicles have led to the inclusion of different types of remote sensing equipment installed on vehicles," says the patent. "Automated navigation and control systems may process data collected by the sensors in order to detect and characterize objects in the environment for various purposes."

The patent describes a range of sensors, and a range of actions that can typically be taken in response to data received, but then points out the limitations of current systems.

"[These] current autonomous vehicle systems typically return control to the driver in the event of an unexpected traffic diversion or any number of other atypical driving situations," it says. "[And] none of these systems addresses unexpected traffic diversions where a pedestrian may be manually directing traffic, for example due to an accident, special event, or road hazard."

Consequently, Apple's proposed solution is to include sensors that "may may collect data about pedestrians... in the vicinity of the vehicle," and analyze them "to identify a traffic diversion condition."

That includes "identifying a traffic director directing traffic using gestures or signs" — and also responding.

"Gestures of a traffic director may be interpreted and understood by the vehicle as commands to perform maneuvers related to the traffic diversion, including stopping, slowing, or turning onto a detour route," continues the patent. "The vehicle may be equipped with a command acknowledgement device for acknowledging to a traffic director the vehicle's understanding of the traffic diversion condition or maneuver commands."

Once detected and determined, the information gathered from a human being directing traffic "may be shared with other vehicles and devices, or stored in a database."

Detail from the patent showing a range of gestures
Detail from the patent showing a range of gestures "Apple Car" could be programmed to recognize

This patent is credited to Sayanan V. Sivaraman, who was previously an engineer in data science for Volkswagon. His work for Apple includes a related patent regarding vehicles automatically changing lanes in response to road and traffic conditions.

Active car suspension

The traffic signal patent is one of three newly granted "Apple Car" ones. A second, "Active suspension system," is concerned with controlling car suspension "so as to maintain contact of the tire and wheel assemblies with the road surface and to provide comfort to passengers in the vehicle body."

"Road vehicles include suspension systems that support a body of the vehicle on road surfaces over which the vehicles travel," explains the patent. "The suspension system controls vertical movement of tire and wheel assemblies relative to the body due to road disturbances."

"Vertical movements of the unsprung mass due to road disturbances generally occur in a low frequency (e.g., around 3 Hz), which may be referred to primary ride," it continues. "Additional vertical movements of the unsprung mass may occur in a higher frequency range due to dynamic characteristics of the unsprung mass (e.g., stiffness of the tire), which may be referred to as secondary ride or wheel hop."

The patent says that typically "movements of the unsprung mass in the low and high frequency ranges are damped by passive fluid dampers." Apple instead proposes an active system which has multiple different ways of being assembled, but generally incorporates an intelligent "control system" that determines how much damping is needed.

Detail from the patent showing the use of active suspension across all of a car's wheels
Detail from the patent showing the use of active suspension across all of a car's wheels

Reducing the chances of collisions

Apple has also been newly granted a third "Apple Car" patent, this time to do with how systems can spot other vehicles even under poor visibility. "Retroreflectors," is concerned with how "certain road or weather conditions... can affect the effectiveness" of systems such as radar or LiDAR.

The term retroreflector refers to a device that reflects back radiation — such as light — without scattering it. Apple's new proposal regards making these retroreflectors, and therefore the "Apple Car," more effective.

Apple says that "the effectiveness of" LiDAR, radar, and"vision-based cameras," can be improved "by improving detectability of the vehicles."

Detail from the patent showing the transmission and reflection of light or radar
Detail from the patent showing the transmission and reflection of light or radar

At its core, the proposal is to have a "plurality of retroreflectors" with the idea that having many of them will mitigate conditions where "water vapor [is] absorbing or scattering light."

This third patent is credited to four inventors, including Malcolm J. Northcott. His related previous work includes a patent for "Apple Car" sensors that can identify objects of interest, and even detect damage to the vehicle's windows.