October 9, 2017
Let’s be honest. We all have a few concerns about self-driving cars. In fact, the public’s fear of autonomous vehicles is one of the main reasons they are not mainstream in the market. While these fears range from a variety of topics, no one will deny that safety is at the forefront of drivers’ minds.
While manufacturers attempt to ease fears, one group does not seem to be addressed —pedestrians. If you think about it, people walking on the side of the street share quite a few human interactions with drivers. For example, pedestrians might wave a driver to go at a crosswalk, or signal the driver to stop for any given reason. What happens to these interactions when a driver no longer controls the car?
Thankfully, these thoughts ran through the minds of researchers at Ford and Virginia Tech, and Ford might have found the solution to this problem in one simple answer—signal lights.
Ford wanted to test how well pedestrians would perceive some new signals coming from self-driving cars, so the company disguised a driver as a seat in Transit Connect vans. Why do these cars have a driver? Remember, the goal here is to see how pedestrians will react to certain signals, not so much to learn how well the autonomous car will drive.
These Transit Connect vans received an extra strip of lights across the window where the typical driver’s eye level would be. This design choice makes sense when considering pedestrians are often taught to make eye contact with cars at intersections—so there’s almost no way the average person could miss these lights.
The lights’ signals remained pretty simple, as slow pulse meant the vehicle would yield. Rapid blinking meant the car would accelerate from a stop. Meanwhile, a solid light bar meant the car was self-driving.
Overall, these tests have received a sizable amount of data; Ford tested these lights over 1,800 miles and 150 hours. As of now, Ford has not yet revealed any of the results of these tests. But if all works out well, these lights could offer one of the simplest solutions to keeping passengers and pedestrians safe in these self-driving cars.
As far as results go, Ford does not currently plan on keeping this technology to itself. Instead, the American company plans to work with the International Organization for Standardization and SAE International. In other words, Ford wants for these lights to become a common safety feature for all self-driving cars.
One of the big questions at the moment concerns how the visually impaired will read these lights. Without going into specifics, Ford already mentioned that it plans to conduct research and find solutions in the near future.
Keep in mind that this is not the first time Ford studied self-driving cars. Earlier this year, Ford looked at how people would react to self-driving cars delivering pizzas in collaboration with pizza food chain, Domino’s.
Overall, these countless tests are justified and necessary for eventually bringing self-driving cars to the market in any form. Vice President of Ford Autonomous Vehicles and Electrification, Sherif Marakby, even mentioned how current self-driving cars are not safe enough to drive in the streets. Therefore, more tests need to be done and more research needs to be conducted before any of this technology can become finalized.
Ford’s bottom line goal with these tests involves bringing autonomous cars to the automotive market by 2021. This goal might seem a bit lofty, but Ford has already invested quite a bit of valuable research into perfecting the formula for the self-driving car.