Other drivers seemed to be taking the empty van in stride. Of course this may be due partly to the inclement weather during that part of the test, or it may be due to the fact that traffic in the Washington, DC area frequently moves so slowly that the streets more closely resemble parking lots than active thoroughfares.
The fact that the study is continuing suggests that the streets of Arlington and likely other cities in Virginia have not seen the last of the mystery van and its disguised driver. Perhaps the Virginia Tech team will take its research to locations where traffic actually moves and see if it gets a reaction.
While the Virginia Tech test may seem a little odd at first, it appears to be an integral part of the university’s deep involvement in transportation and the role of autonomous vehicles. Virginia has already invested in smart highways designed to make the use of autonomous vehicles safer and more efficient. It also has a series of test tracks and facilities designed for autonomous vehicle development.
According to the Institute, “If designed well, automated vehicles have considerable potential for reducing congestion, increasing safety, and providing new transportation solutions for people who currently cannot drive.” The findings will be used to help determine the best designs for autonomous vehicles, including the need to notify others.
“This study is one of many being conducted to determine how best to design automated vehicles,” the Institute said in its statement. The statement said that it’s relevant to ensuring that pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers are accommodated.
The idea of testing the public's reaction to self-driving vehicles may appear slightly amusing at first look, but in reality it’s important. Visual cues are one important input for human drivers and frequently those cues come from other drivers. You can, for example, see the other driver and tell if that driver is looking at you, or whether they seem distracted. Knowing that can help drivers anticipate other drivers' reactions to safely move through traffic.
But with an autonomous vehicle, there’s no other driver from whom to receive visual cues. Signs or signals on the exterior of the self-driving vehicle will prepare human drivers for the fact that they won’t see those cues. In a sense, it’s akin to the efforts in some communities to add beepers or other noise makers to electric cars to alert visually impaired pedestrians to their presence.
At this point we don’t know what Virginia Tech is learning with this research, but finding ways to ensure that other drivers or pedestrians are included is important in itself if autonomous cars are to provide the traffic safety improvements that are being promised.