Ford Motor Co. announced on Tuesday that it is seeking an industry collaboration regarding the link between autonomous cars and pedestrian safety.
Automakers have been experimenting with a multitude of signals, sensors, and screens to match up to what humans can do with eye contact and informal hand gestures. The problem lies in standardisation, as all manufacturers are employing their own unique approaches to one single end goal. The lack of a unified system may lead fellow road users bewildered if the automakers have separate methods of warning and communication.
Standards bodies are examining the subject, but it looks like a concrete solution is quite a few years away. With most leading automakers and tech giants fast-pacing the development of their autonomous vehicles with launches slated in the near future, it is imperative to take into account the single biggest hurdle in the widespread acceptance of driverless cars: pedestrian safety.
Ford said the collaboration will operate under a memorandum of understanding, and the American automaker will share its know-how and technologies with others developing Level-4 autonomy for their cars, which essentially do not need human interaction behind the wheel. Ford executives say they have already received interest from others in joining.
“We all want to avoid having multiple implementations of signals launched in the same space that look different, operate differently, so that, to me, is why we think this is quite urgent right now,” John Shutko, Ford’s human factors technical specialist for self-driving vehicles, told Automotive News. “If we have a few different systems, it’s going to cause confusion. It could cause some municipalities to reject the cars. There could be advocacy groups that say, ‘There’s too much confusion. Get these out of here.’ So we need to act quickly.”
Though Ford is open to altering or updating its design in a potential collaboration, it has already spent considerable time and resources to address this communications hurdle between cars and humans. Shutko and his team have been conducting research to that end for three years now, with the end product being a horizontal screen affixed to the top of a windshield which communicates the vehicle’s status in three basic signals. A steady white rectangle indicates the vehicle is moving. Two converging white rectangles signal the vehicle is yielding or stopping. A rapidly pulsating rectangles indicate the autonomous car is about to start moving.
A few weeks ago, Volkswagen Group had entered a similar technology alliance with other major firms with distinct areas of expertise all relating to the development of autonomous car systems. With a public that is wary of self-driving technology following serious mishaps that have resulted in the death of a person, the need to standardise communications between cars and humans is critical if the autonomous car is to find any takers. If the collaborations do not tackle the issue properly (there is no latitude for mistakes here), it might mean the early demise of this promising technology that is still in its infancy.