And if Google has anything to say about it, that day will come sooner rather than later.
A listing of new patents released this week from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revealed that Google has secured the rights to develop a system for tablet-controlled driving. Patent No. 9084090 describes an idea Google secured for automotive steering that employs “a portable computing device configured to execute software that effectively enables passengers to use a touch screen (or another input device) to perform control actions for the vehicle.”
The patent goes on to describe a variable control function that even knows who’s holding the tablet. A driver could steer the car and regulate other power and braking functions while occupying the driver’s seat. A passenger meanwhile could take the tablet to adjust the car’s climate and entertainment systems.
While this may sound like an accident waiting to happen, Google has thought the idea through: the patent notes that interior controls could be adjusted through smartphone or other mobile device while the tablet is in the driver’s hands.
The notion of virtual driving is almost as old as the automobile – the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair predicted a sleek urban landscape in 1960 where highways were hassle-free and the cars moved about on their own. Only recently has that fantasy encroached on reality. Google has tinkered with the driverless-car concept since 2008 and introduced a pod-like self-driving prototype last year.
Industry-wide, car makers also continue veering closer toward fully automating their vehicles, with push-button start and Bluetooth standard in most new cars, and remote car-starting kits available online for under $200.
But when Google grabs onto a patent idea their grip usually is firm. Whereas many companies struggle and ultimately fail to make their patent fantasies real, Google puts its money where its dreams are and pays to fast-track patents through the federal approval process, thus reducing the approval time from several years to a few months. By late 2014, the Mountain View, Calif.-based tech giant advanced nearly 900 patents through the fast-track process – the most by any company since the patent office introduced fast-tracking in 2011.
It’s estimated that Google paid more than $3.5 million to that point in fast-tracking fees alone. That’s a serious commitment to steering the future closer toward the present.