Ford is using lights to help autonomous cars ‘communicate’ with pedestrians

Ford is engineering a light-based language to help autonomous cars communicate with pedestrians.

Just as there is almost a unique sign/mime-based language that drivers use to communicate with each other as well as pedestrians, Ford has surmised that a similar dedicated language can be developed for autonomous cars to ‘communicate’.

Using lights to, if you will, indicate what a car is doing seems like nothing new, but the system is a little more sophisticated than flashing ambers at either side of a car.

Testing, in conjunction with the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, involved a Transit Connect rigged with lights on the top and crucially, a hidden driver. The ‘human car seat’ to hide the driver made it easier for observers to gauge bystanders reactions to the lights, rather than their responding to the driver behind the wheel.

“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 the realisation that this was absolutely the best and most effective way of finding out what we needed to know,” said Thorsten Warwel, Ford of Europe core lighting manager.

Ford lights autonomous cars communication pedestrians

Of the 173 people surveyed, 60 percent thought it was an autonomous vehicle. Those surveyed, combined with observations of a further 1,600 people found that turquoise was the best colour for lights for noticeability and is less easily confused with red than purple is. Trust in the signals the lights were giving was encouraging, too, thus providing a basis to develop the ‘language’.

With autonomous cars due to take to roads around the world from 2021 onwards, the hurdle of communication between humans and self-driving vehicles needs to be cleared.

Ford lights autonomous cars communication pedestrians

“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 can ensure the light signals are made clearer and more intuitive,” said Dr Matthias Beggiato of the university’s department of psychology.