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Concerns over driverless car safety dismissed with a wave of the hand

A team in the UK has developed a way for pedestrians to communicate with driverless cars, using simple hand motions.

The automated technology of driverless cars is meant to make roads safer by removing the human error element of driving, but there are concerns over the safety of pedestrians around the cars, especially since Mercedes-Benz announced that their autonomous vehicles would prioritise the safety of their passengers over that of the people around the car.

Christoph von Hugo, manager of driver assistance systems and active safety for Mercedes-Benz, said in an interview at last year’s Paris Auto Show: “If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car.

“You could sacrifice the car. You could, but then the people you’ve saved initially, you don’t know what happens to them after that in situations that are often very complex, so you save the ones you know you can save.”

Obviously, people were a bit nervous about the idea that driverless cars totally ignore their safety, so to counter this concern, researchers at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London developed Blink.

As one of the creators, Raunaq Bose, told New Scientist, “This provides a really nice opportunity to rebalance the road power dynamic.”

The system is designed to recognise human figures and movements with the help of sensors and an LED display screen.

When pedestrians raise their hand to indicate they want the car to stop, the sensors recognise that movement and apply the brakes. The LED screen then displays a little green crossing figure to tell the pedestrian that it is safe to proceed.

If the pedestrian puts their hand out to the side to wave the car on, the figure will turn red and the car will move forward.

The idea is similar to Google’s 2015 patent for electronic screens that would attach to driverless vehicles and display text such as “stop” or “safe to cross”, as well as a speaker that would announce things like “coming through”.

However, critics such as George Filip at the University of Nottingham, think that giving pedestrians the power to control automated vehicles in this way will create gridlock in busy cities.

Filip is concerned that the novelty of driverless cars will lead to a misuse of the system, and thinks manufacturers should hold off on pedestrian-car communication systems.

“We need to learn how people actually interact with autonomous vehicles,” he told New Scientist.

Blink hasn’t yet been tested on a driverless car in a real-world situation, but several companies have expressed interest in the technology.

About the author

Hannah loves to travel but can’t read a map, so she has plenty of good stories to tell.

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