If you’re walking or driving in San Jose, California, later this year and have the sense that a late model Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan just made eye contact with rooftop lighted sensors and a quick flash of a signature LED lamp, you could be right. The car could be one of several in a pilot program that will be testing, among other things, its ability to communicate with people and other cars.
German firms Daimler and Bosch partnered on a large-scale autonomous car project starting in 1986. Last month the companies announced a plan to test a ridesharing service in San Jose using autonomous S-Class cars. Riders won’t be charged for the trips, at least not at first. The rides will follow specific routes in the Silicon Valley city.
The Daimler and Bosch project rideshare cars will have trained and certified human operators onboard while traveling on public roads, clearly mindful of but not mentioning the concerns that arose nationwide this year when an Uber-built self-driving Volvo XC90 prototype struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a street while the human aboard was reportedly watching Hulu.
In the preview video accompanying this article, an S-Class sedan demonstrates several features that will acknowledge and signal people, other vehicles, and anything else that will notice. For example, blue LED light stripes on the roof-mounted sensors indicate the vehicle is in self-driving mode.
You’ll know one of the cars is about to begin a trip when you see the car lift its body just a bit, fold the mirrors, and emit a special sound. While the vehicle is traveling, lights on the roof sequence to acknowledge other vehicles and people on or near the roadway. In the preview video, the right signature LED lamp blinks twice to a pedestrian just off the road.
“The cooperative vehicle mimics the natural eye contact between driver and pedestrian, as if to say: ‘I’ve seen you,'” according to Daimler. As the video continues, the pedestrian keeps walking just off the side of the road while the vehicle self-drives in the opposite direction.
The goal of this stage of the Daimler and Bosch project is “to create trust and to make communication between people and self-driving cars as intuitive as possible.”
Conveying a sense of vehicle-to-human communications may be easier in the U.S. than either of the two German companies imagine. In a culture exposed to cars that talk and even have emotions in television series and films, from the short-lived 60s sitcom My Mother the Car to Knight Rider‘s Kitt and Cars‘ Lightning McQueen, accepting that a vehicle greets you on the street isn’t much of a stretch.