Part of the furniture? ‘Driverless’ trial sees human driver disguised as car seat


It’s hard to predict how pedestrians, used to interacting with human drivers, might react when faced with a completely driverless vehicle.

So to find out, Ford recently teamed up with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to test a new method for communicating a self-driving vehicle’s intent, by seeking real-world reactions to a self-driving car.

But how do you simulate a self-driving vehicle experience without using a fully autonomous vehicle?

Image courtesy of ford

Image courtesy of ford

Easy – simply disguise the human driver as a car seat.

That’s what the study partners decided to do, developing a way to conceal the driver with a ‘seat suit’.

The suit was designed to create the illusion of a fully autonomous vehicle – necessary for the researchers to test and evaluate real-world encounters and behaviours.

“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 joint research project set out to explore the most effective way for self-driving vehicles to communicate with pedestrians, human drivers and cyclists.

Researchers considered using a text display – dismissed because of the need for people to understand the same language – and symbols, which were rejected because of historically low recognition among consumers.

Instead, the team decided on lighting signals as the most effective way for self-driving vehicles to communicate visually with other road users.

With light signals already used to indicate plans to turn and brake, the team believed they would also best communicate whether a vehicle is driving in autonomous mode, starting to yield, or about to accelerate from a stop.

Ford added a light bar to the windshield of its Transit Connect van, with researchers using three light signals to communicate the vehicle’s intent:

  • Vehicle is about to yield: two white lights moving from side to side
  • Vehicle is in active autonomous driving mode: a solid white light
  • Vehicle is starting to go: rapidly blinking white light.

The trial saw the van driven on public roads in northern Virginia last month, with researchers capturing video and logging the reactions of pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers, to see if other road users change their behaviour in response to self-driving vehicles.

Preparing for a self-driving future is going to take all of us working together
— John Shutko, Ford

"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 Andy Schaudt, project director, Center for Automated Vehicle Systems, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Ford is also seeking to work with industry bodies towards the creation of a common visual communications interface for self-driving vehicles.

“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.”