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Hand gestures, head nods and a quick flash of the headlights have helped pedestrians and drivers understand one another for years. This unwritten rule is a simple and highly effective solution to crossing the road, giving way and, most importantly, keeping everyone safe. But what happens when autonomous vehicles start to appear on public roads?

Ford thinks it has the answer. The automaker has been testing a light-based visual language system to help self-driving vehicles communicate with pedestrians around them. It’s part of the company’s research into developing a communication interface that will help autonomous vehicles seamlessly integrate with other road users.

During the first initial test, Ford installed a “Human Car Seat” inside one of its Transit Connect vans, which allowed a driver to hide within the seat and give the impression that the vehicle was driving itself. The van used a roof-mounted light bar that flashed white, purple and turquoise to indicate when the van was driving, about to pull forwards and giving way. This meant that pedestrians could effectively understand and react to the ‘autonomous’ vehicle.

“Fundamentally, people need to trust autonomous vehicles and developing one universal visual means of communication is a key to that. Turning someone into a ‘Human Car Seat’ was one of those ideas when there was a bit of a pause and then a realisation that this was absolutely the best and most effective way of finding out what we needed to know,” said Thorsten Warwel, manager, Core Lighting, Ford of Europe.

The latest testing, which complements research already carried out in the US, was conducted together with Chemnitz University of Technology, in Germany. Researchers expanded the tests to check the effectiveness of two other colours, in addition to white; a rooftop location, when the US tests had the lights placed on the top part of the windshield; and situations with further distance, showing the lights up to 500 metres away.

Research shows that 60% of 173 people surveyed after an encounter with the Transit Connect thought it was a self-driving vehicle. There was also a high level of acceptance and trust in the signals, providing a basis from which researchers can further develop and hone the visual language.

“Making eye contact is important – but our study showed that first and foremost road users look to see what a vehicle is doing. The next step is to look at how we might ensure the light signals can be made clearer and more intuitive to everyone,” said Dr. Matthias Beggiato, Department of Psychology, at the university, with which Ford worked on the “InMotion” project, funded with the help of €1 million from the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure as part of the Research Programme on Automation and Connectivity in Road Transport.

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