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Beep, bloop *flashes lights* – How will self-driving cars talk to pedestrians?

Self-driving car technology is building up momentum but has some speed bumps to cross before achieving maximum velocity. While the industry and many people are eager to maneuver self-driving cars into the fast lane, public trust in self-driving cars is causing some serious drag.

Self-driving car technology is building up momentum but has some speed bumps to cross before achieving maximum velocity. While the industry and many people are eager to maneuver self-driving cars into the fast lane, public trust in self-driving cars is causing some serious drag.

So what is taking the air out of the autonomous car industry’s tires? Consider the following implications self-driving cars create for pedestrian and driver safety.

Determining who is more important — pedestrians or drivers

One of the primary concerns with self-driving car technology is how the artificial intelligence driver will interact with human drivers and pedestrians. Walking and driving have long been considered a type of social interaction. Customs of rural and urban areas differ just as much as the people who populate them.

How will an AI driver read body language and intention? If pedestrians want to cross the street, how do they know if they can safely? Can they trust that the self-driving car has recognized their intention to cross and that it will stop? According to a report in the Guardian, public trust in self-driving cars demands a clear, unambiguous way for the self-driving car to communicate with the road-user that they have been seen by the car’s sensors.

Coming to a consensus on the laws and ethics

The laws and ethics surrounding the programming of self-driving cars is as complex as the technology driving them. When the life of a pedestrian or the life of a passenger in a self-driving car is at stake, how should the self-driving car react?

Defining the culpability surrounding an accident with a self-driving car and a pedestrian, or fellow road-user, is another hot area of debate. The auto industry is faced with a new level of moral and legal responsibility by swapping humans for AI drivers.

Navigating around the potholes of pedestrian supremacy

Another concern about the integration of self-driving cars on roadways involves the principle of predictability. Human beings are unpredictable. Self-driving cars are programmed not to be. Self-driving cars will be programmed to yield. Knowing this, pedestrians will find ways to work with and around the system.

“As pedestrians quickly figure out the car's behavior, they will certainly adapt theirs as well," according to Scientific American. "The effects could be dramatic: instead of more consistent, traffic flow could become chaotic.”

By taking advantage of the autonomous car’s predictability, pedestrians will cross streets with less rule-abiding restraint and more pedestrian-supremacy fervor. Traffic congestion, prolonged destination outcomes and the deterioration of the driver-pedestrian relationship could impact the motor-vehicle world with high-beam intensity.

Establishing its street cred: Are self-driving cars needed?

With all the scenarios tailgating the self-driving industry, are self-driving vehicles worth it?

Self-driving cars will save money, reduce dangerous auto emissions and save tens of millions of lives. One publication went so far as to say that “the technology will rank among the most transformative public-health initiatives in human history.”

Performing industry tune-ups for system success

So, what is being done to prepare for these potential issues and gain public trust in self-driving cars? Google has been easing some pedestrian concerns by releasing designs for softer cars. Waymo, Google’s self-driving car project, recently patented shape-shifting cushion technology that would be programmed to soften when pedestrians or cyclists approached. The car-softening technology would provide a softer impact in a pedestrian accident. Vehicle-to-vehicle collisions would not trigger the car softening, protecting the driver from increased harm.

Waymo is also working on text-based displays that communicate with pedestrians, along with audible alerts.

Nissan is also getting a jump on the pedestrian-safety issue by offering intention indicators that would flash lights and project text on the windscreen to communicate with pedestrians and other road-users.

Accepting that self-driving cars are coming

While some concerns abound, autonomous cars are coming and, in some areas, are already here. Self-driving Ubers hit the streets in Pittsburgh, and states are passing legislation to prepare for their imminent arrival. Volvo, Nissan, Honda and Toyota all plan to have self-driving cars on the market by 2020.

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