Ford Calls for Standards for Robocars to Signal Their Intentions

It's not enough to play nicely with others—you also have to be seen playing nicely

2 min read
Photograph of Ford's car with the light bar, at an intersection waiting for a pedestrian with a bike to pass.
Photo: Ford

It’s not enough for a robocar to play nicely with others—it must also be seen to be playing nicely. And that will happen only if the industry can agree on a standard for communication, the Ford Motor Company said in an announcement today.

The standard would go beyond the wireless one that cars use to talk to each other; it would include a visual component. That way, pedestrians and drivers of cars without transceivers can see right away what the robocar intends to do. 

Today, a driver who wants to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians can wave them across or just look them in the eye and smile. A robocar, lacking hands and a face, must instead resort to a standard signal, ideally an intuitively obvious one.

Gif of the light bar in actionGif: Ford

John Shutko, a human factors specialist at Ford, writes today in a blog post that the company has worked with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to send such signals by using a light bar on top of the windshield. Here is the code they used: 

Yielding: Two white lights moving side to side to indicate vehicle is about to come to a full stop
Active driving mode: Solid white light to indicate vehicle intends to proceed on its current course (although can respond appropriately to objects and other road users in the course of its travel)
Start-to-go: Rapidly blinking white light to indicate vehicle is beginning to accelerate from a stop

To make sure that no human cues were sent as well, Ford hid the driver in a suit that made him disappear into the car seat—a great trick to use on Halloween. Then Ford and VTTI conducted field tests together, using cars that lacked the light bar. The companies first made sure that their scheme did no harm—that it encouraged no unfortunate behavior. Then they checked to see how long it took people to get the hang of it. They found that “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.” 

Other companies are also experimenting with visual signals to pedestrians and the drivers of other cars. Last year we wrote about how was bolting LED displays on the front, back, and sides of its prototype self-driving car and using them to display text and images. The problem is, even a high-resolution facsimile of a universally accepted traffic sign might not be intelligible to a schoolchild.

Shutko says that the signaling methods aren’t set in stone and that other companies are welcome to contribute ideas. Ford is already working with SAE, formerly known as the Society of Automotive Engineers, and with the  International Organization of Standardization (ISO).

Meanwhile, Ford plans to test the system on actual self-driving vehicles—Ford Fusion hybrid cars—which will soon be put through their paces in the Miami area by Argo AI, Ford’s self-driving subsidiary. Other tests are planned for Europe, just to make sure that people from other cultures react to the signals in the same way.

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

Keep Reading ↓Show less