Here’s a novel way to test reactions to seeing a driverless car: Try a little subterfuge.
Researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, working with Ford, had the driver of a Transit Connect van dress up in a “seat suit” last month to fool pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers into thinking there was no one behind the wheel. They did it so they could test reactions to seeing a driverless vehicle without actually using one.
Not surprisingly, the scene caused a minor stir in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where the van was driving.
Adam Tuss, an anchor and transportation reporter for the local NBC affiliate, on Twitter described his efforts to track down the mysterious vehicle:
“Alert!!! We found the supposed self-driving van in Arlington — and there’s a guy hiding behind the seat!!!”
Ford explained its reasoning in a news release today.
“To simulate a fully self-driving experience without using an actual autonomous vehicle, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute team developed a way to conceal the driver with a ‘seat suit.’ The suit creates the illusion of a fully autonomous vehicle, which is necessary to test and evaluate real-world encounters and behaviors,” the release said.
Ford provided a video showing a man sitting in the front seat of a van, dressing himself in the costume that matches the vehicle seats. The man’s hands and lower half are visible, but likely not from the street.
Even though the seat suit is perhaps the most memorable part of the testing, the focus was on determining the best way to show a vehicle’s intent, such as when the vehicle is preparing to accelerate, when there is no human behind the wheel. Because lights are already in general use for braking and signaling, researchers settled on light signals and mounted a light bar on the windshield to use light patterns to signal what the vehicle would be doing next as it drove.
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John Shutko, Ford’s human factors technical specialist, explained the reasoning.
“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,” Shutko said in the release.
The vehicle was driven on public roads in the relatively densely populated northern Virginia area in August. Researchers collected more than 150 hours of data over about 1,800 miles of driving.
“This data will be valuable to understanding if other road users change their behaviors in response to self-driving vehicles and the signals they employ,” the release said.
Complete results from the testing are not yet available, but Ford has some preliminary information.
Ford spokesman Alan Hall said the testing, which wrapped up at the end of August, showed that pedestrians generally acted normally and there was no adverse behavior that would affect the safety of pedestrians or the vehicle, and people did not try to touch or trick the vehicle.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @_ericdlawrence.
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