Is Amazon moving into the autonomous vehicle industry?

By: Andrew Krok

Amazon has a whole bunch of ideas up its sleeve, some of which are a bit more… interesting than others. One of its latest patents tackles a problem that could affect a wide swath of future self-driving cars.

The US Patent and Trademark Office just granted Amazon a patent for a system that deals with self-driving cars and reversible lanes. After all, how would a self-driving car handle a lane that could hold oncoming traffic at seemingly arbitrary times?

Patents don’t make for great eye candy, but I bet a five-second glance at this picture gives you an immediate idea of what it’s about.

Photo by US Patent and Trademark Office

To keep it simple, a central roadway management system would be able to monitor reversible lanes and communicate their status to self-driving cars approaching said lanes. That way, an autonomous vehicle would know which lane is best to drive in without having to rely on visual cues to make a last-minute decision.

Amazon’s solution is smart and it could improve driving beyond reversible lanes. Having a central system sending out notifications to individual cars is a staple of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology, which multiple automakers have expressed an interest in developing. Given Amazon’s interest in autonomy, as well, it’s a natural progression for the company to start looking into its own solutions for problems that may still seem far off.

Audi is one automaker that’s charging headfirst into V2I development. The company recently announced its Traffic Light Information system, which relies on traffic management center data to determine how long a red or green light will last. It’s the first implementation of V2I in a production car, but it only works in certain parts of Nevada for now.

Nissan has a similar idea for self-driving cars. Its Seamless Autonomous Mobility system relies on a center staffed with humans to provide guidance to autonomous vehicles that encounter something strange, like a road that’s been partially blocked by police. Over time, machine learning will teach these vehicles how to respond to new issues, based on the solutions presented by the human overseers.

There’s no guarantee Amazon will actually do anything with this patent, either. Companies regularly apply for patents to prevent competitors from taking the idea to market first. It could also license its technology out to companies that are willing to make it a reality.