In one of the more unusual experiments we’ve seen recently, researchers attached a large pair of cartoon eyes to the front of a small, autonomous vehicle — and it turns out that this kind of anthropomorphic adaptation could actually improve pedestrian safety.
A roving pair of peepers on the front of driverless vehicles could, researchers say, give people standing by the side of the road a better idea of whether they’ve been seen. This is a useful piece of information to have when it comes to determining the perfect moment to pass in front of oncoming traffic.
“If the car doesn’t look at the pedestrian, it means the car doesn’t recognize the pedestrian.” the researchers write. “Thus, pedestrians can judge that they should not cross the road, thereby avoiding potential traffic accidents.”
Based on research, this type of “looking car” has the potential to reduce the number of traffic accidents, as well as help pedestrians feel safer.
For the purposes of this study, the researchers used a golf cart rigged to appear as if no one was inside. A pair of large, rotating eyes on the front were being controlled by researchers, but in the future they could be controlled by the car’s artificial intelligence in a real self-driving vehicle.
To keep the 18 participants safe, 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 was fitted with eyes and two when it was not.
The researchers measured how often people hesitated to pass when it was actually safe to do so and how often they chose to pass when it was dangerous. Overall, the presence of eyes led to safer and smoother crossing experiences for participants.
However, there was a gender split in the results. For men, the eyes only really helped in dangerous situations, warning them to stop when they might otherwise move forward. For women, the eyes boosted confidence by signaling that it was safe to cross.
“The results suggested a clear difference between the sexes, which was very strange and unexpected,” says one of the researchers, Chia-Ming Chang from the University of Tokyo in Japan.
“While other factors such as age and background may also have influenced participants’ reactions, we believe this is an important point as it shows that different road users may have different behaviors and needs, requiring different ways of communicating in the future us self-driving world.”
A self-driving world could look very different in every way. Both passengers in autonomous vehicles and other road users around them will have to recalibrate their behavior in some respects.
While oversized animated eyes won’t necessarily be adopted as a future feature of self-driving vehicles, the study is a good example of the kind of research needed to better understand how pedestrians and self-driving cars interact before they hit the road.
Ultimately, the goal is to keep everyone as safe as possible if and when autonomous driving becomes the norm. For now, it looks like it’s still a long way off – giving scientists more time to consider the resulting implications.
“There is not enough research on the interaction between self-driving cars and the people around them, such as pedestrians,” says computer scientist Takeo Igarashi, from the University of Tokyo.
“Thus, we need more research and effort into such interaction to bring safety and security to society about self-driving cars.”
A paper on the research was presented before peer review at the International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicle Applications.