At first, it seemed to be a quirky prank—a man was driving around town dressed up like a car seat and convincing people his car had no one at the wheel. Then we learned that it was all a shadowy research project by Virginia Tech. And now we know that Ford was behind the whole thing and it’s all for science.
If you don’t recall, on August 7th, a local reporter in Arlington, Virginia tweeted a video of a man who appeared to have stuffed himself into his own car seat to give the impression his car was tooling around by itself. It looked like this:
Adam Tuss, who works for NBC News, claimed that when he tried to question the driver, they ran the red light and escaped into the unknown. A spokesperson for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute later told The Guardian that the man was “engaged in research about autonomous vehicles,” and that “the driver’s seating area is configured to make the driver less visible within the vehicle, while still allowing him or her the ability to safely monitor and respond to surroundings.” Today, Ford revealed that it’s working with the university to study the ways in which people interact with autonomous cars. They weren’t looking for dropped-jaws, rather they were collecting data on how smoothly the ride will go when there isn’t an exchange of visual cues between people on the road.
The part of the experiment that Tuss didn’t capture in his frantic video was that the car had a light bar at eye level on the front windshield. Wired explains the visual language that was being used:
Slow blinking meant, I’m stopping. Fast blinking meant, I’m starting. And a solid white light meant, I’m driving around all on my own.
We’re all pretty familiar with the driverless car tests that are being conducted by Google and Uber in cities around the country. There’s a huge rig of sensors on top of the car and a driver behind the wheel who is ready to take over if necessary. These tests are focused on how the car will actually drive itself in traffic. Ford is trying to figure out how to give the self-driving car it’s own version of the “go ahead” nod and the “fuck you buddy” middle finger. First, it’s just seeing if people pick up on a few simple signals.
The experiment in Virginia has gathered 150 hours and 1,800 miles of data so far. John Shutko, a Ford engineer who specializes in human factors for self-driving vehicles, tells Wired that people in VR tests haven’t understood the signals when they were first exposed but they begin to pick it up after seeing it a couple of times.
The idea is to take the data they have and coordinate with 11 other car companies to create a standardized signaling system. Shutko says that Ford is open to whatever works if others have better ideas—the most important thing is that everyone uses the same system.
This partially explains why that driver allegedly blew a red light to avoid questions from a reporter. After the story began to spread, Virginia Tech had to suspend tests for a few days because it wasn’t getting the pure data it was seeking. People weren’t reacting to a driverless car, they were reacting to what they thought was a prankster.
While it’s a little sad to know that there was a legit purpose to the stunt and it wasn’t just some bored guy doing something random, the researchers say the project was partially inspired by YouTubers doing something similar in drive-thrus. Idiocy for idiocy’s-sake is still alive and well.