While tech titans such as Google, Uber, and Apple along with almost every auto maker on the planet have poured resources into the development of autonomous vehicle technology, online retail giant Amazon has been relatively quiet on that front. But a recently approved patent shows the Seattle-based company could be ready to make a big move in the autonomous vehicle space.
The patent doesn’t suggest that Amazon plans to sell self-driving cars through Prime. (Imagine having a new car delivered to your door autonomously.) Nor will it enter the ride-sharing market to compete against Uber, or produce technology that goes into self-driving cars, like Google’s latest autonomous vehicle pivot.
Instead the patent, titled “Lane Assignments for Autonomous Vehicles,” reveals a bigger-picture play that fits with Amazon’s business strategy to deliver goods more efficiently. In particular, it provides a way to communicate with self-driving vehicles so they can adjust to changes in traffic flow when navigating what’s known as reversible lanes that switch direction depending on the volume of the traffic flow and are often used to manage vehicle travel in and out of urban areas.
The patent, which was originally filed in November 2015 but granted earlier this week, notes that autonomous vehicles “may not have information about reversible lanes when approaching a portion of a roadway” that uses them. And it provides a glimpse of why Amazon would want to control traffic patterns as they relate to self-driving cars.
Anticipating Reversible Lanes
There’s the obvious safety benefit of having self-driving cars—or in Amazon’s case, autonomous delivery trucks and vans—not driving the wrong way in traffic and causing a head-on collision. But not being able to anticipate reversible lanes also means delivery trucks can’t optimize their routes in advance, which means they’ll spend more time in traffic, something Amazon wants to avoid.
The patent doesn’t reveal much about Amazon’s own plans to develop self-driving vehicles. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that autonomous vehicles could be an essential part of the Amazon Logistics division, which it launched in 2012 to take more direct control of its delivery network. And self-driving delivery trucks and vans would be a natural extension to Amazon’s purchase of robotics firm Kiva Systems in 2012, which helped it automate its distribution centers.
Another interesting twist is that the division of Amazon leading its autonomous-vehicle research is its drone project, Prime Air. And one of the inventors listed on the patent, Jim Curlander, is a technical adviser at Prime Air.
It’s easy to put the pieces together based on the recent Amazon patent and see it as a way for self-driving trucks to move goods more efficiently to consumers—and eventually eliminate delivery drivers. But I believe there’s something larger at play here. When Amazon has entered markets such as streaming content or cloud services, the online retail giant has made a significant impact. With this patent, Amazon is not only extending its influence to self-driving technology and to the delivery business, but how traffic moves in and out of cities—and to the control of self-driving cars.