Weekly Brief: Ford’s Lightbar Could Help Humans Understand its Robots

Ford pledges to make trust its top priority with self-driving cars, as investors urge Uber to abandon its self-driving division. Andrew Tolve reports.

Every day in cities around the world a wild, ego-driven dance takes place between pedestrians and drivers. The pedestrians, in a rush and disinclined to respect the designated boundaries of a sidewalk, step out into the road even though they may not have the signal or the right of way. Meanwhile the drivers, who are in a rush themselves and disinclined to get stuck at another red light, refuse to slow down, perhaps even speed up. The two come incredibly close. Honking ensues. Expletives and hand gestures are exchanged and then everyone goes merrily on their way, unharmed and unfazed, onto the next battle at the next intersection.

I’m not trying to make light of a situation that can and does lead to pedestrian and driver injuries and fatalities every year around the world but the amazing thing is that most of the time everyone is totally fine and the reason is communication and trust. We humans are remarkably good at knowing how far we can push each other – how many feet out into the crosswalk we can edge without truly compromising our safety; when a driver will yield or a pedestrian will step back because common sense and/or the gravity of the situation demands it. We use eye contact, we use gestures, we use intuition.

The question becomes, can we trust cars that drive themselves the same way, especially if the tools that we currently employ to understand one another no longer apply? Ford thinks we can. Last week the carmaker pledged to help develop a new language that allows AVs to communicate their intention to the pedestrians around them. One example Ford gave of a technology in development is a windshield light bar that produces different light patterns to signal its intent. White lights shifting slowly back and forth let pedestrians know that the car is yielding; rapidly blinking lights let pedestrians know that a stopped car is about to move.

Ford has already tested the light bar for more than 180 hours and approximately 2,300 miles in dense urban areas. It even had a safety driver dress up as a car seat so that pedestrians wouldn’t realize there was a driver behind the wheel. Ford says that the results have been positive so far and that it plans to continue testing ways to enhance communication between AVs and people. Indeed, the company released a thick safety report titled A Matter of Trust that outlines how it won’t stop research and development until it has arrived at an AV fully deserving of our trust – even if it means delaying rollout by years. My colleague Nathan Eddy has more.

Speaking of trust, Uber appears to have lost it completely when it comes to its self-driving ambitions. A few weeks ago we reported that Uber had canceled its self-driving truck division. Last week it came out that some investors are now urging Uber to abandon its self-driving division altogether, given that the program is costing $125M a quarter, more than $1Bn in the last year and a half, which is hindering its efforts to appear profitable as it considers an IPO. Our Stephen Lawson has the full lowdown.

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