How Will Autonomous Cars Communicate with People on the Street?

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Everyone has concerns about how autonomous cars will work. Most of those concerns center on how the car will recognize objects in its environment like other cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. What doesn’t get discussed as often is how people are supposed to tell if an autonomous car sees them and how they’ll know what the car is doing next.

It sounds a little odd, but think about this for a second. Even though pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk, that doesn’t mean we all step out there blindly. We look, just to be sure any oncoming traffic sees us in the first place. We judge this by a car’s speed and often by the driver, who might wave us along.

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The same thing happens if you’re on a bike or in another car. There are moments when drivers communicate visually with others to make sure everyone is on the same page. What happens when it’s an autonomous car without a driver who can wave to show that he sees you stepping out into the street?

Lumileds currently supplies lighting to the automotive industry and is working on how to have our future autonomous cars communicate with us through lights. It’s a natural evolution of the way we already use lights on our cars. Turn signals, hazard lights, and brake lights let other drivers and people on the street know what is going on with a car. Lumileds plans to take this idea a step further with autonomous cars.

We spoke with Dirk Vanderhaeghen, Sr. Director, Global Strategic Marketing OEM, Automotive LED for Lumileds about how the industry will figure out exactly the right way for autonomous cars to communicate their intentions. “It’s the million dollar question,” he said. “Many discussions are ongoing at this moment. What signals are needed? Can you do it in a comprehensive way? Is it simple enough for children, the elderly, and people from different countries to understand?”

The color and placement of the lights on our cars today is regulated to make sure they’re consistent. It doesn’t matter what kind of car is in front of you, a blinking yellow light on the right bumper tells everyone that car is turning right. The system of lights on an autonomous car has to be equally simple.

Lumileds is already working with automakers on proposed solutions to the problem and is far enough along in the process to seek independent evaluation of their ideas. “We are trying to define studies with international universities. A few are in the works to validate in an objective, scientific, and independent way,” said Vanderhaeghen.

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Those studies will help figure out the best possible solution, but that’s still not the end of the story. Once the studies are complete and a proposal is made, regulatory agencies will then enter the picture to make sure the proposed autonomous vehicle lighting is safe to implement in the real world.

Although fully autonomous cars won’t have a person behind the wheel to communicate with people outside the car, carefully designed lights could end up communicating more effectively than human drivers do today.