MIT’s Media Lab demonstrates a system that lets driverless vehicles communicate with pedestrians.

Technology Review – You step off the curb, look to your left, and there is a car coming toward you without a driver—one of the many autonomous vehicles that seem to be appearing in trendy neighborhoods. It slows down and stops at the intersection.

Do you dare step out in front of it to cross the street? Does it know you are there? Or will it suddenly accelerate and break your legs? There’s no driver to make eye-contact with.

A group led by Kent Larsen at the Media Lab has a solution. The researchers have outfitted a prototype electric vehicle (it’s about the size of a desk) with lights that look like eyes and the sensors from an X-Box 360 Kinect. The lights swivel to look at you when the sensors detect you, and blue LEDs flash to indicate the car has seen you. Directional speakers swivel toward you, too, and the car tells you it’s safe to cross. The system can also flash bright white LEDs to get your attention.

A researcher puts his hand close to a sonar sensor, causing LEDs in a wheel to turn orange.

Sonar sensors can detect if a pedestrian is too close to the side of the car. If they do, LEDs in the wheels to turn from green to orange and red—getting redder as you get closer—to warn you, and let you know the car knows you are there.

Just a few years ago, the possibility of autonomous vehicles driving themselves around seemed remote. It would require massive infrastructure, new laws, and completely changing driver’s minds about how reliable robotic cars could be. But now Google is testing driverless cars, and automakers are steadily adding features that allow drivers to opt out of more driving. Adaptive cruise control has taken over braking and acceleration, even in some mid-range cost vehicles. Next year, BMW will sell a car that can drive itself at speeds under 25 miles per hour.

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