Picture this. You are trying to cross a road with no streetlight and cars just keep coming and coming – just a normal occurrence in Mexico City. Eventually, a nice-enough driver slows down and signals you to cross. You thank him or her and carry on, happy you did not have to risk your life just to get home. However, what would happen if the cars that keep passing in front of you are all driverless? How would you know when it is safe to cross? Sure, autonomous technology was developed so cars could stop if they detect a pedestrian in front of them but still, it takes quite some bravery and faith to launch yourself in front of a moving vehicle.
Most talks on autonomous vehicles and advances in self-driving technology focus on how unnerving it will be for the passengers to ride a car with no driver. However, it will be even more unnerving for a pedestrian or a cyclist to try and guess a car’s intentions without a human signaling their intentions.
The race toward a self-driving future is still a-go and companies are full on trying to develop suitable technology that can hit the actual pavement. Most recently, Honda announced it would invest US$2.75 billion in GM’s self-driving unit Cruise. The company had been dabbling with the possibility of investing in Alphabet’s subsidiary Waymo but GM’s manufacturing experience gave the company an edge in attracting Honda’s attention. Furthermore, according to a report from Automotive News, people participating in the discussion said Waymo was limiting the negotiation to not sharing any autonomous technology while Honda focused only on providing the vehicles.
The Japanese OEM has disclosed it will already give US$750 million to GM Cruise, followed by US$2 billion in joint research that will be spent over the next 12 years. In exchange, GM will forfeit a 5.7 percent stake of GM Cruise to Honda.
This new venture comes at just the right time, considering the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has stated it will allow steering wheel-free cars on roads under certain conditions. GM Cruise has already developed such a vehicle on the Chevrolet Bolt’s platform and the company’s plan is to develop a commercial ride-hailing project in 2019, which means that pedestrian could soon be facing cars with no driver at all. So, should people start worrying about reading machines’ minds? Ford thinks not.
In a statement delivered by John Shutko, Ford Human Factors Technical Specialist for Self-Driving Vehicles, the company specified its goal was to earn the trust of the entire community for autonomous vehicles to be successful. “It’s critical it be integrated into society in a way that makes everyone confident in how it works to serve people and business,” he said. To achieve this, Shutko called on all OEMs and technology developers participating in the self-driving race to brainstorm on the best code a vehicle can use to communicate its intentions to pedestrians, which the company has preliminarily solved with a light bar placed at the top of the car’s windshield.
“The work we’ve already done is now open to others through a memorandum of understanding that is intended make it easy for us all to work together,” he specified. The report highlights three actions that vehicles must convey to pedestrians: yielding, which the car indicates by showing two moving lights going side to side; active driving mode, communicated by a solid white light and start-to-go, a rapidly blinking light that signals the vehicle is about to accelerate.
The company fitted a Transit Connect Van with its light bar system and various cameras to observe the response of pedestrians in over 2,000 miles. Afterwards, a virtual test was implemented where subjects with no previous understanding of this code faced Ford vehicles equipped with the light bar and others without. According to the OEM, the results from both tests were promising. “The light signal interface did not encourage any unsafe behavior by other road users,” said Shutko. “We found it took about two exposures for participants to learn what a single signal meant and between five and 10 exposures to understand the meaning of all three lighting patterns.”
Ford’s report underlines this is just one possible solution for the problem and urges more companies to bring new ideas to develop a global standard for all players to follow. In the meantime, the company continues testing its solution both in the US and Europe and is working with the International Organization of Standardization and the Society of Automotive Engineers to fast-forward the creation of such a standard. “Ensuring self-driving vehicles are integrated into society without overwhelming or confusing anyone is what success looks like,” said Shutko. “So to do that, we’ve just got one simple request: Let’s all work together to make it happen.”
The data used in this article was sourced from the Wall Street Journal, Automotive News, IEEE Spectrum, Medium and Ford Motor Company.