Ford has found a rather unusual way to test out how driverless cars communicate with people, and how the average passerby reacts to a vehicle with nobody at the wheel.
It had someone in the driving seat wearing a car seat costume to fool pedestrians and other drivers, and research how people react to driverless cars.
Working alongside the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, Ford has conducted a user experience study that allows driverless cars to signal their intent using light signals on the car. And it wants to gauge real-world reactions, hence the hidden driver.
Now you see him...
“Understanding how self-driving vehicles impact the world as we know it today is critical to ensuring we’re creating the right experience for tomorrow,” said John Shutko, Ford’s human factors technical specialist.
We need to solve for the challenges presented by not having a human driver, so designing a way to replace the head nod or hand wave is fundamental to ensuring safe and efficient operation of self-driving vehicles in our communities.
The research project looked into the most effective way for enabling communication between a self-driving vehicle and other road users. In the end, they went with lighting signals, as they are already standardised for turning and braking.
Here's how it looked in action:
Ford placed a light bar on the windshield of a test vehicle, with six cameras mounted to provide a 360-degree view of people's reactions, with the human disguised as a car seat to create an illusion of a fully autonomous vehicle and effectively monitor people's genuine reactions to a driverless car.
Three different light signals were used to indicate the car intended to yield (two white lights moving side to side), when it was engaged in active autonomous driving (solid white light), and when it was starting to go (a rapidly blinking white light to indicate the car is about to accelerate from a stop).
It carried out tests on public roads in Virginia throughout August, with researchers logging people's reaction, and will now use the data to understand how other road users change their behaviour in response to the signals a driverless car uses.