Virginia Tech Disguises Human to Simulate 'Driverless' Van

NEWS ANALYSIS: Video of an apparently driverless Ford van cruising the streets of Arlington, Va. went viral. But in reality the van was controlled by a human disguised as a car seat.

Driverless Van Goes Viral

It was like watching an autonomous vehicle at its best. A Ford Transit passenger van with an empty driver’s seat cruised through heavy traffic in the crowded streets of Arlington, Virginia, without a hitch.

The steering wheel seemed to turn by itself; the vehicle obeyed every traffic rule, signaled for turns, and gave way to other traffic. The most remarkable thing about the event is that it was so unremarkable.

It was unremarkable, that is, except for the local NBC television station which breathlessly reported on every move of this van that seemed to be without a driver. Finally the reporter caught up with the van at a light, only to discover that it wasn’t autonomous at all. Inside the van was the driver disguised as the driver’s seat. You could tell close-up because you could see the driver’s hands and legs.

But from any kind of a distance, the van looked as if it was driving itself. And that was the idea.

What was going on here was a project being conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The goal of the project, which is still ongoing, is to determine the effect of a driverless vehicle on the public to determine if special signs or signals might be required.

“This study is investigating the potential need for additional exterior signals on automated vehicles,” the institute said in its press materials. “This research is relevant for ensuring pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers are accommodated.”

The research was being conducted with a vehicle that appeared to be driverless, but which actually had a driver for safety reasons. “The driver’s seating area is configured to make the driver less visible within the vehicle, while still allowing him or her the ability to safely monitor and respond to surroundings,” the statement from Virginia Tech explained.

“Development of the test vehicle focused on ensuring driver safety and included several months of piloting and testing the vehicle, first in controlled areas, then in low-density areas and finally in an urban area.”

The vehicle included video cameras trained on the route the vehicle was taking as well as on the exterior so that researchers could watch the reactions of pedestrians, other drivers and cyclists during the apparently autonomous drives. At this point, Virginia Tech isn’t making those videos available to anyone but researchers. However, VTTI said that the results of the research will be made public once it’s finished.

While we weren’t able to see the video from the research vehicle, the news coverage video showed little if any reaction beyond that of the television station’s reporter.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...