Smiling Self-Driving Cars Could Put Pedestrians at Ease

By Jeremy Hsu | September 29, 2016 1:46 pm
Future self-driving cars could smile to let pedestrians know it's OK to cross the street. Credit: Semcon

Future self-driving cars could smile to let pedestrians know it’s OK to cross the street. Credit: Semcon

Many people crossing the road engage in the simple pedestrian ritual of making eye contact with drivers waiting in their cars at the intersection. But a video shows baffled pedestrians pausing when they see a driver reading the newspaper or sleeping at the wheel. Such confusion could become more common as growing numbers of people cross paths with self-driving cars.

The usual ritual of exchanging looks between pedestrians and drivers is likely to become endangered as self-driving cars free up human drivers to do anything but pay attention to the road. That is why Semcon, an international technology company that specializes in product development, came up with the possible solution of giving self-driving cars a front-end display that allows them to “smile” at pedestrians. The smiling car concept is just one possible way that future self-driving cars might communicate with people around them to avoid any confusion or accidents.

Semcon has not outfitted any actual self-driving cars with the smile display just yet. But to show the need for pedestrians to get some sort of signal from driverless vehicles, Semcon ran a demonstration with a manually-driven car rigged up to look like a self-driving car. The “driver” in those cars pretended to busy themselves with reading or sleeping instead of paying attention to the road.

Not surprisingly, pedestrians crossing the street tended to hesitate or even react with shock at the “drivers” who were sometimes literally asleep at the wheel.

To drive the point home, Semcon also commissioned a survey by the analyst firm Inizio to research people’s attitudes toward self-driving cars in countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany. That survey showed that more than 80 percent of people in the surveyed countries will at least occasionally seek eye contact with drivers before crossing a street with no traffic light. U.S. survey participants were also most likely to say they would “always” seek eye contact with drivers (60 percent).

Many of those surveyed also had little trust in self-driving cars detecting and stopping for pedestrians. U.S. survey participants had the most trust in driverless vehicles, but 38 percent still said they were “quite unconfident” or “very unconfident” about self-driving cars stopping for pedestrians. Large numbers of survey respondents across all countries seemed uncertain about the technology by responding “neither confident or unconfident.” And no country had a majority of respondents saying they were “quite” or “very” confident (U.S. confidence was highest here at 33 percent).

Why Self-Driving Cars Must Communicate

Eye contact has already proven key in ordinary pedestrian encounters with normal cars driven by people. Past research has shown that eye contact between pedestrians and drivers allows for calm interactions, according to Volvo researchers based in Sweden who presented research at the AHFE 2016 International Conference on Human Factors in Transportation. But drivers who didn’t seem to be paying attention made pedestrians less willing to cross the street in front of the cars.

Researchers at the Design Lab of the University of California, San Diego have also begun interviewing both pedestrians and human drivers to better understand the future of communication and trust involving self-driving cars. They  presented a brief paper on these issues at the 2016 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing.

Such communication is key because it builds trust between humans and the growing numbers of robots roving the streets. And trust is crucial to public acceptance of driverless vehicles. Pedestrian encounters with self-driving cars will only rise as ridesharing companies such as Uber have begun rolling out driverless taxis for public testing. Even before the Uber public testing, the startup nuTonomy began testing a self-driving taxi service in Singapore.

Such driverless taxis join the self-driving cars already being tested by Google on public roads in California, Washington, Arizona and Texas. Meanwhile, Volvo has been testing self-driving cars on public roads in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Miles to Go

In any case, no company has yet succeeded in deploying fully automated driverless vehicles on public roads that don’t require any human assistance or intervention. Even the human engineers developing and testing self-driving cars do not fully trust the technology’s capabilities just yet. As a result, Uber’s first public tests with customers riding in self-driving cars still include a human driver and an engineer sitting in the front seats.

The humans typically take the wheel whenever the self-driving cars encountered pedestrians. Heather Somerville, a journalist with Reuters, observed her Uber driver taking control whenever pedestrians crossed the street. A Wired journalist also noted an Uber engineer’s dissatisfaction during a particular pedestrian interaction.

“The engineer at the wheel takes over control every few minutes,” wrote Alex Davies, a transportation reporter for Wired. “Once, he’s not happy with how long the car is waiting before slowing for a pedestrian.”

Perhaps one day both pedestrians and self-driving cars will smile when they encounter each other at the crosswalk.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts, Uncategorized
  • polistra24

    Considering who is paying the programmers, I’m not going to cross the street in front of ANY autonomous Unperson-Liquidator.

  • imispgh

    NHTSA should shut down all auto piloted and self-driving cars until
    proper exception handling testing is done. Especially when the companies who make them come from Commercial IT. This is because those companies,the Google’s, the Tesla’s, the Uber’s have little actual best practice experience in designing large and complex systems. Especially when massive exception handling is needed. Far more engineering, code and testing should be going in to these systems than that of the “happy” or normal path. The perturbations of environmental and automobile system error conditions are immense. Picture a busy circle or roundabout with
    20 cars on a bad weather day and something happens. How do each of those automated vehicles handle each other, the vehicles not automated and external factors like slippery roads, vehicle failure or even a bicyclist who rolls right through the middle by mistake. How are chain reactions handled? To work through the requirements and scenario perturbations, design integrated systems to deal with it and test this takes folks with experience in doing that. And they need the proper tools. Most of this is non-existent in Commercial IT. The places to find these folks, methods and tools would be NASA, DoD and the airlines industry. Couple them with people with automobile system and traffic engineering and you would be on the way to something that will work. The first company who gets this and has the patience to do it right will win out. The others will eventually face so much litigation and potentially criminal charges and will have wasted so much time in ignoring this path they will no longer be players in the space.

    1) Using text based scope docs that do not build into a full
    system view. Use Cases and Stories are extremely poor ways to illicit
    and explain scope. What is needed is Diagrams. These facilitate visual flow where exception handling points would exist. This step is the most important. if you cannot see all of the combinations you cannot design or test for them.

    2) Using BAs for scope and QA for testing. DoD uses a systems
    engineer for both. That way there is continuity. To make sure they don’t have a fox in the hen house QC is also performed. (BTW testing is QC. Auditing and improving process is QA. Commercial IT can’t even get the titles right)

    3) They lack proper tools that facilitate scope decomposition
    through design, code and testing. Something like DOORs. Commercial IT rarely has separate tools let alone an integrated one. Most won’t even use a proper RTVM in Excel.

    4) Software configuration management – Commercial IT rarely creates a product wide integrated SWCM system. They have dozens or even hundreds of little teams who have their own CM. And they use tools that relay on best practice use. Something that doesn’t exist. Having Jira and Git isn’t nearly enough. There is a reason IBMs Clearcase is not free.

    5) They rarely have chief architects that look across the whole
    system. They have the same stove piped little kingdoms I just mentioned above for software.

    6) Full system testing is rarely done. Especially when there are
    third party interfaces. Simulators are rarely built to replace those
    parties if they are not connected in the test environment.

    7) There is no Earned Value Management (EVM) or proper estimation tools or productivity data. (Like rework, defect density and proper root cause data). This means they will have major schedule and budget issues. (Given the deep pockets of Google, Uber and Tesla this one might not matter)

    (When Elon Musk took the first set of code for Space X to NASA it
    was rejected because they didn’t come close to handling exceptions.)

  • O[b]ama

    New York City’s “Ground Zero” is the World Transportation Center (WTC), the point of origin for America’s new self-driving-car infrastructure.

    When you search “World Transportation Center” on the Google Maps app, Manhattan’s former World Trade Center (WTC) comes up.


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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