Autonomous cars: how do passers-by react?

Camouflaged behind the wheel
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M an can not not communicate “- communication science students learn that in their first lecture. What the philosopher and psychoanalyst Paul Watzlawick means by this: Even without words, we are always in contact with our fellow human beings, whether we like it or not. Glances and gestures indicate to pedestrians, for example, whether they are also being noticed by the driver. But what if we are suddenly no longer facing a person but a machine?

A problem that all manufacturers and suppliers around the world who deal with autonomous mobility have to deal with. But how do you test environmental reactions under real conditions without endangering other road users? Especially since the legislature prohibits self-driving cars in public traffic?

Dino Eisele
The' Undercover 'seat cannot be put on alone. Anette Sawonski helps it slip on so that it fits properly.

The solution is as simple as it is ingenious. The driver of the test vehicle is simply given a cover that visually merges with the seat. The editor behind the wheel is almost invisible to a fleeting glimpse from the outside, while he can look out through a mirrored film himself. Well, the cover is not really comfortable, because the field of vision and freedom of movement are somewhat restricted, and the best air conditioning is of no use under the thick leather skin. But what does one not do in the service of science?

Communication problems

The 'undercover' seat cannot be put on alone. Anette Sawonski helps it slip on so that it fits properly. The mechanical engineer heads the “Global Lighting Core” project at Ford, which is carried out in cooperation with the TUChemnitz carried out two studies with this test vehicle. “The aim was to find out whether and what kind of communication other road users expect from a self-driving car,” she explains. The LED strip mounted on the roof emits three different light signals, which are intended to draw attention to the autonomous car through flashing signals in a turquoise color. For example, starting and braking are communicated to the outside.

First finding: the lights are perceived by passers-by, but their meaning is often unclear. 'Like traffic light colors, the new signals from autonomous cars first have to be learned,' concludes Isabel Neumann from Chemnitz University of Technology. One of the greatest challenges is also to find globally uniform rules for the design of signals and a special color for autonomous cars. That is why further studies are being planned, which will examine the acceptance of zebra crossings projected onto the road, among other things, according to the research assistant.

Undercover deployment

Time to find out for yourself how the invisible in HG Wells' science fiction novel must have felt. At first, however, only a few take notice of the supposedly empty driver's seat in passing. The flashing LEDs attract too much attention. That changes when we approach a drive-in. Instead of handing over the ordered fries, the waitress pushes the pane back in panic. However, the colleagues who have been summoned cannot help her either. Only when we cleared up the situation do the ladies calm down again.

The staff at the nearby car wash reacts much more relaxed. Since the LED strip is not waterproof, it must be removed beforehand. Nevertheless, the Cologne owner calmly takes the driverless hustle and bustle, pulls the prepared 10-euro note out of the gap in the window and begins to hose down the Ford. Afterwards we learn that he suspected a TV prank behind the driverless car and just played along.

In fact, a computer voice like the one K.I.T.T. in the 80s series 'Knight Rider' had been helpful here. But before cars can talk to us, they first have to master sign language.

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