Apple invents a Vehicle Radar System that reads Road Signs & Warns of Road Hazards in low visibility Conditions like a Snow Storm
Earlier today Patently Apple discovered a Project Titan related patent in the European Patent Office that was posted last Wednesday, February 15, 2019 under #EP3482220. The system relates to improving detectability of road signs and vehicles on the road in low visibility conditions like fog or snow with a plurality of retroreflectors. For instance, if traveling on the road in a snow storm and road signs are covered in snow, a retroreflector system, using radar, would be able to read the text under the snow and relate it to the driver on a CarPlay display and/or other device display (iPhone, iPad).
Apple notes that visibility of vehicles on the road is paramount to safety of drivers. In low visibility conditions (e.g., fog, dust, snow or smog), a driver's inability to see other vehicles or road hazards increases the risk of a collision. Vehicles can mitigate the risk of collision by utilizing additional systems such as radar systems, vision-based cameras and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) cameras. Certain road or weather conditions can affect the effectiveness of these systems, such as water vapor absorbing or scattering light, thereby reducing proper detection of vehicles. The effectiveness of these systems can be improved by improving detectability of the vehicles.
Apple's invention relates to a retroreflector system that includes a plurality of retroreflectors. The plurality of retroreflectors is configured to reflect a radar signal, a light, a lidar signal, or any other type of signal to a respective signal source. The plurality of retroreflectors may be at least partially embedded in an outer body panel of a vehicle. The outer body panel is configured to allow the radar signal to pass through to the plurality of retroreflectors.
Apple's patent FIG. 2 below illustrates a plurality of retroreflectors configured to reflect a signal in low visibility conditions; FIG. 4 illustrates a schematic diagram of a plurality of retroreflectors embedded in a bumper assembly of a vehicle.
More specifically, FIG. 2 illustrates a retroreflector system (#200) having a road sign (#210) configured to provide information to a vehicle #220. The retroreflector system may include an outer body panel (#202) and a plurality of retroreflectors (#204) that may be fully embedded in an assembly positioned behind the outer body panel.
The road sign may include text (#212) that indicates information that is useful to drivers, the information including, but not limited to, a speed limit, a stop sign, an advisory sign, a road condition warning, a distance marker, a restriction warning, a direction indicator, a street name, a route marker, a road identifier, a parking zone marker, an interest landmark, an emergency warning, a crosswalk sign, a school zone marker, a wildlife indicator, or any combination thereof.
In some embodiments, the signal source (#222) may include an optical sensor, such as a camera, to read the text on the road sign (#210). However, the camera may not be able to read the text when a low visibility condition (#240), such as fog, rain, snow, ice, nighttime, dirt, mud, a dust storm, haze, smog or any other visibly obstructive condition.
The signal source #222 may include a radar device configured to emit the signal #224. The signal may include a radar signal which may include a radio frequency component. The low visibility condition may be transparent to the radar signal based on the radio frequency component being configured to permeate physical or visual obstructions with little to no signal degradation.
The plurality of retroreflectors may be configured with a standing wave interference pattern. The standing wave interference pattern may be shaped or controlled. For example, the standing wave interference pattern may be encoded to transmit a bit pattern that may indicate the text on the road sign.
Apple notes that "A representation of the text as reflected by the signal on the plurality of retroreflectors may be rendered by the vehicle and displayed to a passenger on a display device."
While Apple isn't specific about the display device, in another area of the patent, the devices would seem to include an iPhone, iPad or the display in an infotainment system such as CarPlay.
As illustrated in FIG. 4 above, the retroreflector system (#400) may alternatively be integrated in a bumper assembly of a vehicle. The outer body panel (#402) may be coupled to the bumper assembly or embedded in an outer surface of the bumper assembly. For example, the outer body panel may be integral to the bumper assembly such that it may be the outer surface of the bumper assembly. The plurality of retroreflectors (#404) may be embedded in an internal portion of the bumper assembly. The internal portion of the bumper assembly may include an impact absorber 406. The impact absorber may be constructed from a material configured to be flexible in the event of an impact, such as foam or plastic.
In the Big Picture
This is obviously an invention looking many years down the road. Technology companies are likely in the process of working with U.S. state and Canadian provincial governments on the development of next-gen road sign technologies that will be able to communicate with semi and fully autonomous vehicles being developed by companies such as Apple, Google, Tesla, Ford and others.
Apple couldn't create such a system without it being a part of a much larger interconnected system created by governments in regards to future road systems.
Apple's patent application that was published by the European Patent Office this past Wednesday was originally filed back on September 20, 2017. The priority U.S. patent was filed in September 2017. Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.
Side Note #1: While the patent doesn't cover the system using Siri, it would stand to reason that over time this feature could be extended in the patent via a continuation so as to allow Siri to call out road signs ahead of time so that the driver could keep their eyes on the road. For instance, during a snow storm, Siri could be set to communicate with a driver, such as stating: "At the next intersection there is a stop sign."
An alternative system would be to have road sign information appear on a Heads-Up display windshield system or an Augmented Reality Windshield.
Side Note #2: While Apple's patent FIG. 4 above describes the radar system being alternatively built into a vehicle's bumper, the patent doesn't expand on the value of the system in that position other than a brief statement in the first overview paragraph at the top of this report about the inability for drivers to see vehicles and "road hazards" ahead.
In low visibility road conditions like fog and snow, there are times when drivers could barely see 30 feet ahead of them. Every year we hear of 10 to 70 car pile-ups on the highway due to poor visibility like the one presented in the video below.
By having a radar system as described in Apple's patent filing, it would theoretically be able to communicate with the driver that there's a danger in the road ahead to assist the driver slowdown in time to change lanes and/or get off the road to avoid a major collision.
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