LV & WH, May 2015
What happens if there is no driver behind the wheel? How can the universally understood eye-contact between driver and pedestrian be replaced by technology?
Different than imposing a vehicle top-down in an environment, profoundly embedding it in a meaningful situation means to take its surroundings into account. The common private car always lagged behind when it came to communication. As a matter of fact: it still is unable to communicate adequately in an urban environment. In the early days of automotive (1860’s), automobiles needed to be accompanied by a crew of three, including a man with a red flag walking at least 50 meters ahead of the vehicle. But it soon became better with the introduction of hand gestures to signal whether you wanted to make a turn or perform a stop. Later on came the head- and turning lights. And then the communication abilities somehow stopped their innovative course. Up until now. Writer Joost Vandecasteele describes it as follows in one of his recent columns:
"It’s always been a mystery to me how honking has evolved from its official warning function to a passkey of every possible expression behind the wheel. (...) Cars are produced with the most advanced technological features and yet the shrill horn remains the same for generations. (...) [Maybe one can design a horn] that creates sentences instead of the sharp sound: Hey! You there, in front of me! You’re not causing danger, but you irritate me!"
(Joost Vandecasteele. “Als het voetvolk Brussel verovert”, De Standaard, 11/06/15, translated)
The visual signalisation of a driverless vehicle is not very useful to its own sort, but mainly must inform its intentions towards other means of transport. Vision still remains a good way to do so, but as brainstorm: what could be achieved with other sensory information?
The ultimate goal is to be able to read every intention of a vehicle in a natural way. Think about eye-contact between a driver and a pedestrian willing to cross the street. A simple nod of understanding is enough to communicate whether the vehicle will stop or not. So what happens if there is no driver behind the wheel? How can this universally understood form of communication be replaced by technology?
Vehicles are easily personified: they have a 'natural' expression to them, mainly coming from lights looking a bit like eyes. Some look very friendly, some incredibly angry. Would it be possible to use this kind of intuitive reading as a means of communication and evidence of intelligence? In that way, driverless vehicles are not just vehicles without a driver. They feel like the intelligence of the driver is still in there somewhere. They are not truly 'driverless'; they become 'driver-embedded'.