Re­searcher teaches driver­less ve­hi­cles how to com­mu­ni­cate with hu­mans

Dis­guised as a car seat, he helps robo­cars steer around ob­sta­cles, traf­fic

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY MICHAEL LARIS michael.laris@wash­post.com

The man in the seat-cush­ion cos­tume got all the at­ten­tion. What ap­peared to be a driver­less ve­hi­cle ac­tu­ally had a re­searcher sit­ting in the front seat, dis­guised to make it look like he wasn’t be­hind the wheel.

But the strip of white lights on the top of the wind­shield of­fered a clue to the sort-of-clan­des­tine study Vir­ginia Tech is run­ning on the streets of Ar­ling­ton County.

Take a close look at the video of the van tool­ing around Ar­ling­ton cap­tured by the news site ARL now, which, with an as­sist from NBC Wash­ing­ton’s Adam Tuss, un­masked the pres­ence of the rolling ex­per­i­ment. Tuss knocked on the van’s win­dow when he saw it Mon­day, but the guy in the cos­tume de­clined to an­swer ques­tions. “We’re try­ing not to dirty the data and make sure peo­ple aren’t keep­ing their eyes peeled,” said Mindy Buchanan-King, a spokes­woman for the Vir­ginia Tech Trans­porta­tion In­sti­tute.

The video shows the white strip of wind­shield lights flick­er­ing more or less around cross­walks. So what’s go­ing on? Re­searchers are work­ing to make sure their robo­cars can emit some kind of re­place­ment for the sub­tle cues that driv­ers and pedes­tri­ans rely on to stay safe.

De­vel­op­ers have taught driver­less cars to stay in their lanes, steer around ob­sta­cles and fol­low traf­fic laws. More and more pas­sen­gers are be­ing fer­ried around in test ve­hi­cles and get­ting com­fort­able giv­ing up the wheel. Now there’s a fo­cus on “ex­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

“It’s ba­si­cally the next big topic we need to tackle,” said Myra Blanco, a se­nior au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle re­searcher at Vir­ginia Tech. From eye con­tact to lit­tle waves, com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween hu­mans is a vi­tal part of what hap­pens on the roads, she said.

When a pedes­trian is ready to cross the street, “there’s usu­ally that look­ing at the driver. Is he go­ing to let me go? Should I wait? Is he pay­ing at­ten­tion or not?” Blanco said.

Same thing with cars at an in­ter­sec­tion. “If you have a stop sign, are you go­ing or am I go­ing? Okay, you go ahead first. You kind of do a wave.”

Blanco de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about the re­search with the sil­ver van, be­cause she doesn’t want to foul up work be­ing con­ducted by col­leagues. Buchanan King would not say whether the cos­tumed re­searcher in the front seat was there as backup, as is cus­tom­ary in driver­less test­ing, or was driv­ing him­self.

Vir­ginia Tech re­leased a state­ment say­ing “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.”

The study “is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the po­ten­tial need for ad­di­tional ex­te­rior sig­nals on au­to­mated ve­hi­cles. This re­search is rel­e­vant for en­sur­ing pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists, and other driv­ers are ac­com­mo­dated,” ac­cord­ing to the state­ment. It will even­tu­ally be made pub­lic.

But re­searchers from Vir­ginia Tech, Ford Mo­tor Co., the Uni­ver­sity of Leeds and Japan’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced In­dus­trial Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy out­lined more de­tails about the ques­tions be­ing con­sid­ered in such re­search at a sym­po­sium this sum­mer. Among them: How should cars com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers on the road while they’re mov­ing, stopped or tran­si­tion­ing? And would it make sense to stan­dard­ize such com­mu­ni­ca­tion?

In ad­di­tion to eye con­tact and ges­tures, peo­ple on the road com­mu­ni­cate with “turn sig­nals, horns, and even the con­trol of their move­ment to show in­tent (e.g. eas­ing ve­hi­cle for­ward),” ac­cord­ing to a sum­mary of the re­searchers’ dis­cus­sion at the Au­to­mated Ve­hi­cles Sym­po­sium held in San Fran­cisco last month.

It’s un­clear whether driver­less cars “will be able to per­ceive and com­mu­ni­cate in­tent in the same ways that a hu­man can,” ac­cord­ing to the sum­mary, so de­sign­ing them “to sig­nal their in­tent in ways other road­way users can re­li­ably un­der­stand” is crit­i­cal.

Buchanan-King said the Ar­ling­ton van was taken off the road tem­po­rar­ily to check in with the driver, given all the at­ten­tion. “He was fine,” she said. “As far as I know, the study will con­tinue as planned.”

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