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A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute researcher wears the "seat suit" used to research pedestrians' reactions to a self-driving vehicle. Photo: Kim Hart / Axios

The internet freaked out last month when a "driverless" van was spotted roaming the streets of Arlington, Va. It turned out to be driven by a human wearing a "seat suit" as part of a study about how people interact with self-driving cars.

  • Now we know why: Ford was testing light signals to communicate with pedestrians, bicyclists and other human drivers. It's part of the automaker's effort to create a standard visual language so autonomous vehicles can communicate their intentions to other road users.
  • For example: Today, drivers may signal their intentions to pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers with a hand wave, head nod or other visual cue to show their next move or to acknowledge it's OK to proceed through an intersection.
  • Why it matters: Replacing those visual cues will be essential for people to adjust to a driverless world, said John Shutko, Ford's human factors technical specialist.

Fully autonomous cars are expected to dramatically increase driving safety when they eventually hit the roads, but it could cause new hazards for other road users. And to be successful, people have to actually want them on the roads.

"We are now considering how society in general is going to interact with these vehicles," Shutko said. "I think it will help with overall acceptance of them."

Details: Ford teamed up with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute for the study. Researchers logged 150 hours of data over 1,800 miles and activated external signals on the car to gauge pedestrians' reactions. Ford placed a bar of white lights on the windshield of the test vehicle and tested three signal types:

  • Yielding: Two white lights moving side to side, showing the vehicle is about to come to a full stop
  • Active autonomous driving: Solid white lights to indicate the vehicle is driving autonomously
  • Accelerating: Rapidly blinking white light to indicate vehicle is beginning to go from a stop.

Researchers chose light signals because they are already standardized and understood for driving actions such as breaking and turning. Ford placed the lights at the top of the windshield so they would not interfere with headlights or turn signals.

Standardization push: It would be a huge failure on the industry's part if different automakers come to market with different strategies for these types of signals, Shutko said. Ford is already working with standard-setting bodies, and wants other manufacturers to collaborate on the effort. So far, no one has expressed interest, Shutko said.

What's next: The study's results will be released later this fall. Ford and VTTI decided to explain the research after last month's media attention so that people wouldn't think the research project was "just a prank."

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The big picture: President Biden has said he expects the country's death toll to exceed 500,000 people by next month, as the rate of deaths due to the virus continues to escalate.

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