Imagine walking down the road and you need to cross, you instinctively try to catch the attention of the driver any car coming at you and signal that he let you cross. The guy gives a friendly wave letting you know it’s safe to cross or signals you to wait. All this communication between you and the driver was necessary for you to cross safely. But now imagine a self-driving, unmanned car in the picture instead of a human-driven car. How on earth would you and the car communicate a way out?
Ford was haunted with the same question and is addressing it with the help of Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The duo carried out an experiment to check the reactions of pedestrians and other drivers to an unmanned, Autonomous car. How would they react, communicate and judge what the self-driving car was doing.?
They dressed up a man as a car seat, yes! Camoflauged a man to be seen as a car seat and put him behind the wheel of a Volkswagen eGolf with “Stanford Autonomous Car” stickers on it and set them to test drive. They collected over 150 hour of data across 1800 miles of driving, which included interactions with other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists.
The Institute mounted light bar on top of the windshield, at a level where any other vehicle driver or pedestrian would instinctively look to communicate with the car, and the light bar would inform onlookers about what it was doing, accelerating from a stop, yielding, autonomously driving, etc. The light bar would show a slow white pulse for yielding, blink rapidly when moving from a full stop, staying solidly ON when driving in autonomous mode.
“This work is of value not only to vehicle users and manufacturers, but also to anyone who walks, rides or drives alongside autonomous vehicles in the future,” said project director Andy Schaudt in a press release.
VTTI considered on many options to help the car communicate which included displayed text in a language, say English, but this option would not cater to people who would not understand that language. They also considered using symbols, but symbols can be interpreted in different ways by different individuals. They eventually settled on flashing lights because they can be understood across different languages and cultures.
The duo discovered that this light-language definitely needs to reach every person so that it can be learned. Only through repeated and consistent use of this language will it become known and easily Interpreted by any person easily and instinctively.
This is not the first step towards autonomous vehicle communication. Google had patented a communication system in which it would display “safe to cross” kind of message on the self-driving vehicle as a way of communication. Drive.ai, a robotics company, tested displays that were mounted on the roof of autonomous cars that would display normal signage like the ones we see on the roads, normally. Swedish researchers invented a display that would project a smiley to indicate that it was safe to cross to the pedestrians.
Ford is also working on another detail in this communication system. It still has to work out a method for this system to work with the visually and hearing impaired pedestrians. It would build a separate stream to address this challenge of the communication system.