A month or so ago there was widespread reports of a self-driving van in Virginia which turned out to be a normal car with a driver dressed as a car-seat – yep, you read that right. Turns out, it was an experiment Ford were conducting into how people would interact with self-driving vehicles.

Working with Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Ford rigged a Transit Connect with a few extra lights and a drivers seat which allowed the actual person behind the wheel to be hidden from plain sight.

The idea here is, we’re going to have all these autonomous cars on the roads in the near future, so how on earth will the people walking around know what they are doing.

Today we glance into the drivers seat and look for a knowing nod or hand gesture to understand what the driver is planning or to acknowledge they’ve seen us.

So the rigged this car with some lights that would hopefully assist with those communications.

“Understanding how self-driving vehicles impact the world as we know it today is critical to ensuring we’re creating the right experience for tomorrow,” said John Shutko, Ford’s human factors technical specialist.

“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.”

They thought about using text to display commands and messages, but that requires a single language understanding. Symbols were also rejected because apparently they have a low recognition among consumers.

So, they went with lights.

  • Yielding: Two white lights that move side to side, indicating vehicle is about to yield to a full stop
  • Active autonomous driving: Solid white light to indicate vehicle is driving autonomously
  • Starting to go: Rapidly blinking white light to indicate vehicle is beginning to accelerate from a stop

Video was recorded to monitor reactions of the people around the car and will be used to study the reactions in the hope of developing some industry standards for all autonomous cars in the future.