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"Self-Driving" Van actually Contains Cleverly Disguised Human

The Quest for Vehicle-Human Communication

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by Aaron Mack in AV Development
September 18, 2017

Ever had one of those ambiguous four-way stop sign situations where you weren’t really sure if it was your turn to go, but then you got the “all clear” with a quick hand gesture from the driver across from you? This is a small triumph of human communication that makes the world go ‘round—and the complexity of driving palatable. But what happens if the car across from you is operated by a computer, computers being notorious for having no hands and incapable of gesturing?

Ford Motors has responded to this very question.

While residents of Virginia were recently surprised to spot a Ford Transit Connect van roaming their city streets with no driver behind the wheel, in reality, they were all being fooled. What appeared to be an autonomous vehicle was actually being operated by a human being cleverly disguised as a driver’s seat.

Ford, in collaboration with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, recently set out to study driver and pedestrian reactions to the presence of autonomous vehicles. More importantly, they wanted to test a proposed system of visual communication—based on flashing lights—that would enable autonomous vehicles to communicate their actions and intentions to human beings. Such a “language” could be incredibly useful in situations where human and automated drivers are thrown into the mix together.

Choosing northern Virginia as their test bed, researchers made their human experimenter disappear behind the wheel and set him loose on the streets. The subject’s “autonomous” van was equipped with a windshield-mounted light bar, which used different flash configurations to relay different intentions. Flashing lights, for example, meant the vehicle was about to accelerate from a stop, while two white lights moving side to side meant the vehicle was about to yield to a stop. A 360-degree camera recorded the action to collect valuable data on the way humans responded to the experiment.

According to Ford, this light-based system may be the simplest, most effective way for autonomous cars to “talk” to surrounding roads users.

From a societal perspective, the capability for computers to communicate with human drivers is a must-have in terms of furthering the widespread adoption of self-driving cars. While it’s easy to picture a future in which driving is a thing of the past and robots rule the road, in reality, stakeholders predict that autonomous vehicles will penetrate the road network gradually, with a fully self-driving network still decades away.

In the meantime, it looks like all of us are going to have to learn to speak minivan.

Watch a video of Ford’s “driverless car” experiment here. (Video courtesy of Ford).

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