Autonomous vehicles are coming along in leaps and bounds, but a lot of questions remain over exactly how comfortable the average person will be with them roaming the streets. To better understand public reactions to such scenarios, along with how these vehicles can broadcast their movements, Ford has done the logical thing and disguised a human driver as a car seat to fool passers by.
The research project was carried out with the help of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and was designed to explore issues surrounding how autonomous vehicles will interact with other road users, be they pedestrians, cyclists or other cars with human drivers.
This includes not just how such road users will respond to the sight of a driverless car rolling down the street, but how that car can signal its intentions in the interests of safety. So whether it is accelerating or about to yield, for example, the kind of situation where a human driver might nod or wave a pedestrian across in front of them.
To do this, the team wanted to deploy an autonomous vehicle and use cameras to capture the behavior of other road users, but there was a problem: you can't just send an autonomous vehicle out on public roads without a human onboard. So the team disguised the driver as the seat to simply create the illusion of a driverless vehicle.
It also equipped the car, a Ford Transit Connect van, with a means of communicating its intentions – a light bar on the windshield that pulses when the car was yielding, blinks rapidly if accelerating and remains solid if just driving normally. Ford says it went with this approach over text displays to avoid language issues in different countries, and because it more closely resembles the signal displays of current human-driven cars (red brake lights, turn signals etc).
The car was then driven around 1,800 mi (2,900 km), gathering data on user behavior in a dense urban environment over more than 150 hours. Researchers logged pedestrian interactions as the signals were activated more than 1,650 times at intersections, parking lots, airport roadways and other locations.
While they note there is a lot more research to be done in the area, including how driverless cars can communicate with the blind and visually impaired, the researchers say the early results are promising and this type of system could one day become an accepted visual language for communication between driverless cars and other road users.
Whether it takes that form or something else, Ford says it's more important that the industry comes together to develop a standardized language for this purpose. It is currently working with several organizations, such as the International Organization for Standardization and SAE International (the folks that devised the six levels of autonomy), to that end.
You can check out the (seemingly) driverless Ford Transit Connect in action in the video below.