How Ford is Working with Others to Develop a Self-Driving Car Language

Karen Dybis

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One of the most important things a self-driving car must be able to do is communicate with the world around it. This requires a new, universal language that these vehicles can use to safely connect with cyclists, pedestrians and other drivers, including scooter riders.


That is why we are spearheading an effort to create an industry standard for what we call driving intent. We’re reaching out to self-driving vehicle developers, automakers and technology companies to join our efforts to develop tools to help self-driving vehicles “talk” to others on the road across geographies and age groups.


All participants will work openly. The companies are committed to not only deploying SAE level-4 vehicles, but also to the concept of communicating intent in self-driving vehicles


We’ve gotten the ball rolling with an idea that is both familiar and innovative. Our product developers are testing a special light bar that will be located just above the windshield on a self-driving vehicle. The bar uses three different light signals to indicate what it is going to do next, whether it is yielding, actively in driving mode or preparing to accelerate from a complete stop.


Using virtual reality, we tested the light bar and saw its potential. Users in these tests showed how they learned the signal pattern that we developed. The next step was a real-world study of this self-driving intent interface.


In 2017, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute worked with us to take its light bar on the road. VTTI and Ford mounted its concept light bar on a Ford Transit Connect Cargo Van. The VTTI team also created a suit that allowed a human driver to be concealed behind the wheel during the testing. The goal was to see whether the van’s light bar alone could communicate the vehicle’s intent to the people walking, cycling, riding scooters and driving alongside.


The light bar works in a way that is similar to a car’s turn-signal indicator. For example, to show that the self-driving vehicle is yielding, two white lights move from side to side as the vehicle comes to a full stop. In active driving mode, a solid white light shows the vehicle intends to proceed on its current course. A rapidly blinking white light means the vehicle is ready to go, beginning to accelerate from a full stop.


Along with VTTI, we studied hours of video footage to observe how pedestrians, cyclists, scooter riders and other drivers interacted with the light bar. We found people understood the signals the light bar emitted and responded appropriately, following its communication and interacting safely with the self-driving vehicle.


Additional virtual-reality testing followed this real-world experience. Study participants in a digital world watched as vehicles, including those that were self driving, went through an intersection. Participants who were not briefed on the light bar or its signals quickly learned what its intent was within about two exposures. By the end of five and 10 exposures, participants understood the meaning of all three lighting patterns.


At Ford, we will continue to test the light bar on other vehicles, including our Fusion Hybrid self-driving development vehicles, and in other locations, including Miami-Dade County and sites in Europe to see if the light signals can be universally understood.


In the interest of building trust and safety in self-driving vehicles, we’re ready and eager to work with universities, other companies and organizations, including the International Organization of Standardization and the Society of Automotive Engineers, to create a unified communication interface.


Through this open and team-orientated approach, we believe working together on a common goal that benefits all is the right way to serve all on the road. 

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