As self-driving cars become commonplace, the question on everyone’s tongues is how well will they react to pedestrians. With human drivers, it’s relatively easy to understand that they likely won’t just mow you over at a crossing (unless it’s a BMW). But without one? It will always be hard to tell whether a computer system has recognized you as an obstruction.
Well, worry no more, as some Japanese researchers have come up with the most ridiculous solution that may actually work – massive, cartoonish googly eyes.
Strapped to the front like a modernized Brum, these flitting eyes would allow pedestrians to know that they have been spotted by the cars’ onboard detection systems, creating an anthropomorphic comfort and reassuring them that they can cross the road in peace.
“If the car is not looking at the pedestrian, this implies that the car does not recognize the pedestrian. Thus, pedestrians can judge that they should not cross the street, thereby avoiding potential traffic accidents,” write the researchers in the study.
The concept is simple enough, but it could add a necessary safety feature that could help humans become more accustomed to our self-driving overlords.
For the study, the researchers employed a golf buggy that had tinted windows on the front to make it appear as if no one was driving. They then attached large eyes onto the front that were controlled by the researchers remotely, and a virtual reality pedestrian crossing environment was set up so that the participants didn’t get actually run over.
Nine men and nine women were asked to cross the road when the buggy was coming, with the buggies either equipped with eyes or not. They discovered that the presence of eyes improved the crossing scenario, and participants crossed more safely and smoothly while being gazed upon by the giant googlies.
In both groups, the eyes improved how “safe” the participants felt when assessing the danger of the situation (though many noted they didn’t like how the massive eyes looked, understandably). However, the eyes functioned differently between the two – in men, it acted as a danger signal, warning them from crossing if it would be a dangerous move; while in women, it instilled confidence and made them feel safer in crossing.
“In this study, the male participants made many dangerous road-crossing decisions (i.e., choosing to cross when the car was not stopping), but these errors were reduced by the cart’s eye gaze. However, there was not much difference in safe situations for them (i.e., choosing to cross when the car was going to stop),” explained Project Lecturer Chia-Ming Chang, one of the authors, in a statement.
“On the other hand, the female participants made more inefficient decisions (i.e., choosing not to cross when the car was intending to stop) and these errors were reduced by the cart’s eye gaze. However, there was not much difference in unsafe situations for them.”
The research hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, so it may be subject to some big limitations, but it does pose some interesting questions on the possible technology that could be used to signal danger to pedestrians. Who knows – the next Tesla might just come with optional googly eyes.
The study was published in the journal International Conference on Automotive User Interfaces and Interactive Vehicular Applications.