While much has been written about the coming technological future, when cars will drive themselves, actually seeing an unmanned vehicle on the road is still something of a surprising experience for most people. Cars, at least now — and most all of them — have drivers behind the wheel.
But, as the people of Arlington, Virginia, found out, cars that drive themselves are not anywhere as strange as it is going to get on the road to the autonomous automobile future. That’s because the development of self-driving cars will not just require cutting-edge mobile and digital systems to handle the deluge of data that is about to rain down during the connected future.
It will, in some cases, also require researchers to become masters of disguise.
We bet you think we’re kidding. Well, we’re not.
Last week, many people thought they saw their first unmanned vehicle touring the streets. What they actually saw was a man dressed as a car seat cruising the streets in a silver minivan.
You can see the video below:
With the help of local NBC reporter Adam Tuss, the people tried to get some answers, but the man in the car seat costume stayed in character and said nothing.
Some background research by The Washington Post managed to determine that the van is part of a study of autonomous automobiles underway by Virginia Tech, which is trying build a better future for cars that drive themselves (and the people who ride in them).
So Why Dress a Human Up as a Car Seat?
Tech researchers are specifically concerned about replacing all the small visual cues that drivers exchange with each other and with pedestrians while operating on the road.
“It’s basically the next big topic we need to tackle,” said Myra Blanco, a senior autonomous vehicle researcher at Virginia Tech, “because eye contact and waving aren’t just polite — they are vital ways human beings communicate information about how to operate on the road.
The guy in the costume got all the press, but the flickering white lights on the windshield you can see in the video were probably a bit more important to the research at hand. White lights flicker when the car is using crosswalks and other places it has the potential to interact with human pedestrians.
If cars can be programmed to obey traffic laws and get around obstacles that are stationary, the time has come to tackle the dynamic obstacles that are pedestrians in motion, particularly in urban and ex-urban environments.
According to Blanco, pedestrians and drivers communicate often: “there’s usually that look at the driver to see whether or not he’ll let them pass or whether he should wait. Or whether he is even paying attention,” Blanco said.
She explained that one of the most common things about driving — etiquette at a stop sign — is all done through nods, waves and smiling, when humans at the wheel can decide what order in which to proceed.
But artificial intelligence (AI) doesn’t nod, and it is not easy to program the capacity of a nod to bypass traffic laws for human drivers in some limited situations, but not all.
Virginia Tech had no comment on the specifics of the experiment or why exactly the driver in the costume is there, only noting that “the driver’s seating area is configured to make the driver less visible within the vehicle, while still allowing him or her the ability to safely monitor and respond to surroundings.”
It is also unknown if the car was driving itself and if the costumed driver (aka car seat) was a customary backup in driverless testing.
Past those details, Virginia Tech would only note that the research on exterior signals on automated vehicles “is relevant for ensuring pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers are accommodated.”
As in kept safe.
Tech’s research teams are not alone in pondering this question, though their methods for solving it are novel.
Ford Motor Company, the University of Leeds and Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology all presented at a symposium this summer on what the future of cars communicating with others on the road should look like.
Particularly of interest was whether it makes sense to create industry standards around such communication.
The discussion at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco last month specifically queried whether automated cars will be able to “perceive and communicate intent in the same ways that a human can, calling into question whether AI can accurately replicate ... human communications on the road based on things like turn signals, horns and subtle movement patterns such as easing vehicles forward into traffic.”
The groups also noted that before autonomous cars can become a mainstream reality, they need to be able to “signal their intent in a uniform enough way that any road user can understand.”
As for the silver van, well, it was taken off the road temporarily to make sure the driver was okay with his sudden internet stardom.
According to Virginia Tech, the driver is fine, and the experiment will roll on soon.