Going undercover to teach people skills to self-driving cars

September 14, 2017

Today, a simple head nod or hand wave from a driver is usually enough to indicate it’s OK for a pedestrian to cross the street. But how will a self-driving car, with no human aboard, communicate with walkers, cyclists or people operating other cars on the road?


We partnered with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in the U.S. to investigate the most effective means – and to gauge people’s reactions to potential solutions. This meant concealing a driver, behind a fake seat, in a car that otherwise appeared to be an autonomous vehicle with no occupants.

“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, our human factors technical specialist.


As light signals are already the standard means of indicating and braking, these were determined to be the most effective means for a self-driving vehicle to signal to its intentions. We equipped a test vehicle with a light bar on the windshield – with different states to show when the vehicle was driving autonomously, about to stop and to move off –while six high-definition cameras offered a 360-degree view of surrounding areas to capture the behavior of other road users.

More than 150 hours of data over approximately 1,800 miles of driving was collected, including encounters with pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers. Now researchers will use this data to understand how other road users respond to the signals.


“This work is of value not only to vehicle users and manufacturers, but to anyone who walks, rides or drives alongside an autonomous vehicle in the future,” said Andy Schaudt, project director, Center for Automated Vehicle Systems, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “We are proud to support Ford in developing this very important research.”


We are already working with several industry organisations to push towards the creation of a common visual communications interface that most people can understand across all self-driving vehicles; and are initiating research into a potential solution for a communications protocol with those who are blind or visually impaired.


“Preparing for a self-driving future is going to take all of us working together,” said Shutko. “That’s why we’re developing and advocating for a standard solution so it can be adopted by the industry and applied to all self-driving vehicles.”



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