In early August, the transportation reporter at Arlington, Virginia’s NBC affiliate filmed a video as he approached a Ford Transit van that appeared to be piloted by a man dressed up as the front seat of a car. Despite the fact that the man’s hands were clearly poking out of the costume, and the reporter’s earnest prompt of “I’m with the news, dude,” there were no apparent answers. The video went appropriately viral, and only then was it uncovered that this wasn’t just a goof, it was a test being performed by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute. Now, it turns out, Ford was in on it, too.
A post on Ford’s Self-Driven blog details how the company, which has been funding the project over at VTTI, was using this ruse to learn about how pedestrians and other drivers will respond to self-driving cars. A main focus of the project is the mysterious light bar that stretches across the van’s windshield. While some guessed it was a LIDAR sensor, or some other such self-driving tech, Ford and VTTI are using it to experiment with how to communicate an autonomous car’s intentions to the people around it.
So far, Ford has come up with a simple set of animations: when the lights blink fast, it’s a sign that the van is about to accelerate away from a stop. A slower pulsing is used to convey that the car is yielding to other traffic. A solid white stripe indicates it is operating autonomously. Ford says it chose a string of white lights because the use of colored lights is regulated differently around the world, and it didn’t want to favor one language over the rest.
The problem with that setup, obviously, is that very few people know how to interpret those symbols just yet. But Ford has plenty of time to figure it out. While Tesla is constantly pushing its semi-autonomous Autopilot software, and luxury competitors like Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz are polishing up similar features, Ford is taking a much more conservative approach to self-driving technology. The company doesn’t plan to have a fully self-driving car hit the road until 2021, and it has said it doesn’t want to bother with Level 2 or Level 3 autonomy, where a human still can author some control over the car. Ford is more focused on complete autonomy, either limited to a certain area (Level 4) or not (Level 5).
Which brings us all the way back to the man in the car seat costume. By taking the slow lane with self-driving cars, Ford has more time for market research and testing the ideas it comes up with. So much, in fact, that there’s now a pattern of weirdness emerging, like a self-driving pizza delivery car, or dressing a man up as part of the vehicle’s furniture.
We know that Ford cares deeply enough about its technological chops (or the perception of those bona fides) that it dumped $1 billion into a previously unknown AI company and even pushed out its smiley CEO in favor of one with deeper ties to Silicon Valley. I don’t know if disguising a man as a seat helps the company look as edgy as it hopes to be, but it feels safe to say this only scratches the surface of what Ford is willing to do to prove that out.