Amid a flurry of announcements around the development of automated driving technology, online retail behemoth Amazon quietly joined the fray by being granted a patent for communications between autonomous vehicles and roadway management systems.
Specifically, U.S. Patent 9,547,986 deals with sharing lane direction and guidance information with self-driving vehicles on roads that have reversible lanes. While the system would seem to deal mainly with on-highway automated vehicles, the proposed system is applicable to “any type of vehicle, including but not limited to cars, trucks, vans, buses, street cars, helicopters, trains, subways, aircrafts, boats, etc., regardless of how powered or driven.”
The patent contains no information about what Amazon’s plans may be, but given that the company already operates a dedicated fleet of semi-trucks hauling goods to and from its distribution centers as well as panel delivery trucks, a move into autonomous driving seems inevitable.
Amazon didn’t respond to emails and calls seeking additional details on the patent, granted January 17.
In 2016 Uber purchased self-driving truck startup Otto for an estimated $680 million, underscoring an intention to expand from ride-hailing services for individual passengers into commercial trucking and deliveries. Given how dependent Amazon’s business is on fast, efficient logistics it is intensely focused on deploying technology that helps fulfill customer orders as rapidly as possible.
Unlike dense urban environments, highway driving is generally less challenging for vehicles under the control of artificial intelligence systems to master. Still, Amazon’s vehicle-to-infrastructure communication system addresses an issue that must be solved before the technology can be deployed, along with helping vehicles merge in traffic and change lanes.
The metro Seattle area, Amazon’s home region, has long used reversible highway lanes to ease rush-hour congestion and the technology the retailer has developed ensures that automated vehicles are guided to the appropriate lanes when the change occurs. Automated vehicles using Amazon’s system can also alert the roadway management system of lane changes they plan to make, with a goal of keeping traffic flowing smoothly.
Amazon has leased cargo aircraft, filed for an ocean freight shipping permit, tested prototype drones it wants to deploy for speedy delivery of small items and has been rumored to be a potential investor in HERE, a high-definition mapping service that’s working with a broad range of auto and tech companies real-time navigation data services. Robotic trucks and vans are a logical addition to the company’s evolving logistics strategy.