The driverless van spotted around Virginia last month was testing more than just how people reacted to a vehicle with no one behind the wheel.
Working alongside the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, Ford has conducted a user experience study that allows driverless cars to signal their intent using light signals on the vehicle.
The new communications method, which uses simple light signals to depict whether a self-driving vehicle is slowing or accelerating, has the potential to become a universal industry standard in all countries, Ford and institute researchers said.
Three different light signals were used to indicate the auto meant to yield (two white lights moving side to side), when it was engaged in active autonomous driving (solid white light), and when it was starting to go (a rapidly blinking white light to indicate the vehicle is about to accelerate from a stop). Mainly because you actually still do need to have someone behind the wheel in real-world testing, and also because for the purposes of this experiment, Ford and VTTI didn't actually need a self-driving vehicle - they just needed people to believe wholeheartedly they were using one.
But in a post on Medium on Wednesday, John Shutko, Ford's human factors technical specialist for self-driving vehicles, wrote the project was a two-way street.
Shutko wrote that the seat suit not only allowed Ford and the team at Virginia Tech to collect real-world reactions to the seemingly autonomous van but it also allowed Ford to test a bar of white lights positioned at the top of the windshield.
The company collected data from cameras mounted on the outside of the study vehicle.
Ford's chosen signals for the project are simple, but they're meant to be, and they're created to not just replicate existing vehicle signalling apparatus, like break lights and turn signals, but to fill in gaps where we now communicate via subtle gestures, eye contact and other less obvious mechanisms. The white lights are a prototype of how self-driving cars might communicate what they intend to do on the road. And before the vehicle started, the lights rapidly blinked to signal pedestrians it was about to move.