Yes, you read that correctly: Ford put a man in a car seat disguise so that a Ford Transit could masquerade as a true self-driving vehicle. Why? To evaluate how passers-by, other drivers on the road and cyclists reacted to sharing the road with an autonomous vehicle.
The trial, conducted with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, also made use of a light bar mounted on the top of the windshield to provide communication about what the car was doing, including yielding, driving autonomously or accelerating from a full stop.
So why engage in such elaborate dress-up, especially when it's not even Halloween? Mainly because you actually still do need to have someone behind the wheel in real-world testing, and also because for the purposes of this experiment, Ford and VTTI didn't actually need a self-driving car – they just needed people to believe wholeheartedly they were using one.
The Transit Connect van used for the trial would indicate its behavior using signals including a slow white pulse for yielding, a rapid blinking for accelerating from a stop, and staying solid if it's actively in self-driving mode. The bar is positioned roughly where a driver's eye line would be, to try to catch the attention of those around it who would look in its direction.
Ford's chosen signals for the project are simple, but they're intended to be, and they're designed to not just replicate existing vehicle signalling apparatus, like break lights and turn signals, but to fill in gaps where we currently communicate via subtle gestures, eye contact and other less obvious mechanisms.
Ford and VTTI conducted VR testing to discover that these definitely need to be learned – people need a few different exposures before they clue in. But there's potential for them to become widely accepted, provided they're repeated often and consistently.
The test is just the start, though already Ford and VTTI have run 150 hours of tests covering around 1,800 miles in their urban testing ground, with a dense concentration of pedestrians, other drivers and cyclists. The eventual goal is to continue with light signal research, and then to work together with industry standards organizations including the International Organization for Standardization and SAE International to make these shared in common across automotive and transportation companies.
There's a lot of work ahead – I hope that seat costume is comfortable, since previous similar examples suggest wearable upholstery isn't.