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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."

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
42 mins ago - Technology

Intel CEO wants to compete against Apple

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger hasn't given up on the idea of the Mac once again using Intel chips, but he acknowledges it will probably be years before he gets that chance.

  • In the meantime, he is focused on powering Windows machines that give Apple CEO Tim Cook a run for his money.

Why it matters: In getting pushed out of the Mac, Intel not only lost a customer, but picked up a new rival.

47 mins ago - Health

Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, in an "Axios on HBO" interview, said he's reluctant to withhold federal funding from states that won't enforce school mask mandates because he doesn't want to hurt students.

Why it matters: Cardona's comments suggest there are limits to how far the Biden administration will go in pressuring states to adopt universal masking — or vaccine mandates.

Mike Allen, author of AM
57 mins ago - Axios on HBO

GOP senator smacks Trump

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told “Axios on HBO” he’s not sure former President Donald Trump would win the Republican nomination if he ran in 2024 — a rare voice of criticism from within the party.

  • When I raised the conventional wisdom that Trump would be expected to win the nomination, Cassidy jumped in.“
  • I don't know that,” the senator said during our interview in Chalmette, La.