Ford develops communication between robot car and humans

Ford develops communication between robot car and humans

Technology News |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

In everyday traffic, human road users communicate intuitively by small gestures: a short wave or nod is often enough to indicate that the other person is allowed to pass through. This element of communication is missing in autonomous cars. Ford is now testing how such a simple “gesture language” between robocar and human road users could look like.

When Daimler sent an autonomous Mercedes through the traffic in 2013, a fundamental weakness of the electronic chauffeurs became obvious: An elderly couple was waiting at a pedestrian crossing. The automatic Mercedes stopped allow the pedestrian to cross. However, the two pedestrians made a gesture to make it clear that they would prefer the car to drive first. The computer on board the Mercedes didn’t understand the hint and insisted on not continuing until after the pedestrians. The deadlock situation could only be resolved after the human safety driver intervened.

This problem is still waiting for a solution. Wherever in the world autonomous cars are particiupting in normal traffic, such misunderstandings occur. Now Ford is working with the Virginia Tech Transport Transportation Institute to establish an interaction between human and electronic road users by providing easy-to-understand signals. “Understanding how self-driven vehicles can operate in the real world is the basis for the development of future traffic reality,” says John Shutko, Human Factors Technical Specialist, Ford Motor Company. “We must find solutions to the challenge of ensuring that at some point no human driver will be behind the wheel. It is about how we can replace natural human gestures to ensure the safe and efficient operation of self-propelled vehicles in public spaces”.

Initially, the researchers considered displaying large textual information on the vehicle, but this would require that all road users understand the same language. The use of symbols was rejected because new symbols are not recognized enough by humans. In the end, they experimented with light signals. Light signals for turning and brake indication are already standard and generally accepted, so that a lighting application is considered the most effective means of communication.

For example, a self-driving vehicle could signal whether it is operating in autonomous driving mode, whether it wants to start or whether it wants to remain stationary. Towards this end, Ford positioned a light bar on the windshield of a test vehicle. In addition, six HD cameras were installed to detect the behavior of other road users in a 360-degree panoramic view.

To simulate autonomous driving without a person behind the wheel, the researchers developed a camouflage suit that hides the person in the driver’s seat. The suit looks like an ordinary driver’s seat from the outside and creates the illusion of an autonomous vehicle. This is essential for the evaluation of real encounters between the transporter and other road users.

The team experimented with three different lighting scenarios to test the effects of the following vehicle signals:

  • Autonomous driving mode: The light bar lights up constantly white to indicate that the vehicle is in autonomous driving mode
  • Start: Rapidly flashing white light to display theimpending acceleration from a standing start.
  • Stop: Two white lights moving sideways indicate that the vehicle is stopping.

The simulation was carried out with the Ford Transit Connect test vehicle on public roads in the north of the U. S. state of Virginia, where there is a high traffic density and comparatively many pedestrians. Over a distance of about 2,500 kilometers, the researchers recorded videos and protocols of the reactions to encounters with pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles. Experiments were conducted in urban traffic, including at intersections and car parks. The researchers will use the data gained to understand how road users react to signals from a self-propelled vehicle.

The ca maker is also working with several standardization organizations, including the International Organization for Standardization and SAE, to promote the creation of an industry standard. A common visual communication interface that most people can universally understand would be important to ensure the safe integration of autonomous vehicles into existing transport systems.

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