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Are All Seemingly Autonomous Cars Really “Driverless”?

Anyone motoring around northern Virginia in the summer of 2017 might have done a double-take if they passed what looked like a car moving without a driver. But the Ford Transit Connect van wasn't actually a self-driving car. There really was someone behind the wheel -- hidden inside a fake car seat that made it look as if no one was driving. The ruse was part of a Ford-funded study carried out by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to see how drivers and pedestrians would react to what appeared to be a driverless vehicle. Ford and other automakers are in the process of designing a standardized "language" of flashing lights that self-driving cars would use to signal their intentions, such as stopping or turning, and to alert people to the fact that they are driverless.

The only hitch in the 2017 experiment came when local news stations got wind of the deception. The study was put on hold for a few days to ensure that people would be reacting to empty-looking cars and not just expecting them to contain guys disguised as car seats.

Driven to go driverless:

  • The idea of a self-driving car has been around since at least 1939, when the New York World's Fair boasted an exhibit about driverless technology.
  • All of the accidents involving Google's fleet of self-driving cars (which have covered 5 million miles, or 8 million km, since 2009) have been caused by human drivers, mostly rear-ending the Google vehicles.
  • The driverless car market has been predicted to be a $77-billion USD industry by the year 2035, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
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