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Ford Develops Lighting Signals for Driverless Cars to ‘Speak' to Pedestrians

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【Summary】During the trials, researchers manually drove the vehicles and concealed themselves as a car seat (in order to mimic driverless cars on public roads). The most effective light color that emerged from the study was turquoise.

Michael Cheng    Mar 19, 2019 6:00 AM PT
Ford Develops Lighting Signals for Driverless Cars to ‘Speak' to Pedestrians

When it comes to signaling, light is one of the most reliable methods for catching someone's attention in busy locations. This tried-and-tested principle was applied in Ford's latest project covering communication between autonomous cars and pedestrians.

The Detroit-based automaker recently published the details of the experiment, which leverages a straightforward lighting language that notifies people within the vehicle's environment about its real-time driving status. During the trials, researchers manually drove the vehicles and concealed themselves as a car seat (in order to mimic driverless cars on public roads).

Language of Light

Researchers incorporated a long LED light bar on the roof of test vehicles for displaying various lighting patterns to pedestrians. Deployed in Germany, the device flashed purple, turquoise and white light – depending on the status of the car. The results of the study showed that 60 percent of people who encountered the Transit Connect vehicles believed the units were autonomous.

Moreover, the most effective light color that emerged from the study was turquoise. Purple was chosen as an alternative to red, to avoid confusion with emergency vehicles and conventional (red) braking lights. When encountering the test vehicles on the road, the majority of people stopped to assess the signal, prior to making a move.

"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 might ensure the light signals can be made clearer and more intuitive to everyone," said Dr. Matthias Beggiato, Department of Psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology, in Germany.

As for the location of the LED light bar on driverless cars, previous trials in collaboration with lighting company HELLA suggest placement does not affect signaling effectiveness. In those tests, Ford and HELLA displayed illuminative signals on grills, headlamps and rooftops.

LEDs are suitable for automotive signaling, due to their solid-state builds. The durable lighting solutions also come with extended lifespans capable of exceeding 50,000+ hours and do not rely on loose filaments or toxic gases during illumination. In rough conditions, the lamps can withstand light impacts, as well as fluctuating temperatures.

Enhancing Communication with Pedestrians

Interestingly, automakers developing driverless cars have come up with their own ways to improve communication with pedestrians. Last year, Jaguar Land Rover tested a pair of eyes mounted at the front of self-driving pods. If implemented, the unique solution would enable autonomous shuttles to acknowledge the presence of nearby people by making (virtual) eye contact with them. The large eyes are combined with a guidance light, which projects a passive safety beam on the ground.

For driverless deliveries that require meticulous interaction with customers, FedEx bots set to undergo trials around the US are equipped with interactive panels at the front and back of the units. During transport, the back panel advises pedestrians about the general movements of the compact bots.

"Fundamentally, people need to trust autonomous vehicles and developing one universal visual means of communication is a key to that," explained Thorsten Warwel, Core Lighting Manager at Ford, Europe.

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