In one of the most unusual experiments we’ve seen recently, researchers attached a large pair of cartoonish googly eyes to the front of a small, self-driving vehicle – and it turns out this kind of anthropomorphic modification could actually improve pedestrian safety.
A pair of roving peepers on the front of driverless vehicles could, researchers say, give people standing near the road a better idea of whether they have been seen. This is useful information to have when determining the ideal time to cross in front of oncoming traffic.
“If the car does not look at the pedestrian, it implies that the car does not recognize the pedestrian” write the researchers. “In this way, pedestrians can judge that they should not cross the street, thus avoiding possible traffic accidents.”
According to research, this type of “fixed car” has the potential to reduce the number of traffic accidents and help pedestrians feel safer.
For the purposes of this study, the researchers used a rigged golf cart to make it look like no one was inside. A pair of large swivel eyes on the front have been controlled by researchers, but in the future they could be controlled by the car’s AI on a true self-driving vehicle.
To ensure the safety of the 18 participants, experiments were conducted in virtual reality. The volunteers – nine men and nine women – were asked to decide whether or not to cross the road as the cart approached. Four scenarios were tested in total; two when the cart had eyes, and two when it didn’t.
The researchers measured how often people hesitated to cross when it was actually safe to do so, and how often they chose to cross when it was unsafe. Overall, the presence of the eyes led to safer and smoother traversal experiences for participants.
However, there was a gender split in the results. For the men, the eyes only really helped in dangerous situations, warning them to pause when they might otherwise continue. For women, the eyes boosted confidence by signaling that it was safe to cross.
“The results suggested a clear gender difference, which was very surprising and unexpected,” says one of the researchersChia-Ming Chang from the University of Tokyo in Japan.
“While other factors like age and background also influenced participants’ reactions, we think this is an important point, as it shows that different road users may have different behaviors and needs, that require different means of communication in our future self-driving world.”
A self-contained world may seem significantly different in all sorts of ways. Both the passengers inside the autonomous vehicles and the other road users around them are going to have to recalibrate their behavior in certain respects.
While oversized cartoon eyes aren’t necessarily embraced as a future feature of self-driving vehicles, the study is a good example of the type of research needed to better understand how pedestrians and self-driving cars interact before hitting the road.
Ultimately, the goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible, if and when autonomous driving becomes the norm. At the moment, it seems to be still far – give scientists more time to consider the resulting implications.
“There are not enough investigations into the interaction between self-driving cars and the people around them, such as pedestrians,” says computer scientist Takeo Igarashifrom the University of Tokyo.
“So we need more investigation and effort on such interaction to bring security and assurance to society regarding self-driving cars.”
A document on research was presented before peer review at the International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicle Applications.