Believe it or not, these eyes make an autonomous car much safer for pedestrians.
Whether you believe autonomous vehicles can peacefully coexist in society or not, you must admit that the research on the topic is fascinating. The University of Tokyo recently studied the effects of putting eyes on cars, and the result was a staggering 64% reduction in unsafe crossings.
Before we get into the research, think back to one of the thousands of times you've crossed a road. One of the biggest fears is an oncoming car not seeing you, even at a pedestrian crossing. The easiest way to judge whether it's safe is to look at the driver to see if they're paying attention. If you ride a motorcycle, you likely also use this tactic. The best way to avoid a bad driver is to check whether they're paying attention or caught up in social media.
This is precisely what the study was trying to emulate.
The researchers built the "Gazing Car," and it's equipped with comically large robotic eyeballs. Why? The answer is remarkably simple.
"There is not enough investigation into the interaction between self-driving cars and the people around them, such as pedestrians. So, we need more investigation and effort into such interaction to bring safety and assurance to society regarding self-driving cars," said Professor Takeo Igarashi from the Graduate School of Information Science and Technology.
Igarashi and his team basically built a robot to mimic the human interaction we referred to earlier. They're giving autonomous cars human qualities to replace the trust between humans. In a Level 5 autonomous vehicle, the human will effectively be a passenger, not paying attention. So instead of looking at them, you can give the car a stare-down instead.
Obviously, it's unsafe to test this theory in the real world, so the study had to play out in virtual reality. The team built an autonomous golf cart with two large remote-controlled eyes for demonstration purposes only.
The VR test consisted of four scenarios, two where the car had eyes and two without. The cart had either noticed the pedestrian and was intending to stop or had not seen them and was going to keep driving. When the cart had eyes, the eyes would either be looking towards the pedestrian (going to stop) or looking away (not going to stop).
The university used 18 participants, and they were given three seconds to decide whether they were going to cross or not.
We wouldn't cross under any circumstances, considering the poor performance of the most basic autonomous systems published by the AAA recently.
"The results suggested a clear difference between genders, which was very surprising and unexpected," said Project Lecturer Chia-Ming Chang, a member of the research team. "While other factors like age and background might have also influenced the participants' reactions, we believe this is an important point, as it shows that different road users may have different behaviors and needs, that require different communication ways in our future self-driving world."
"In this study, the male participants made many dangerous road-crossing decisions, but these errors were reduced by the cart's eye gaze. However, there was not much difference in safe situations for them," explained Chang. "On the other hand, the female participants made more inefficient decisions and these errors were reduced by the cart's eye gaze. However, there was not much difference in unsafe situations for them."
The main point of the study is that eyeballs work. Now, it's worth noting that the university is not suggesting a giant set of eyeballs as fitted to the golf cart. The only reason the car looks like this is to show the precise movement of the eyes and budget.
"In the future, it would be better to have a professional product designer find the best design, but it would probably still be difficult to satisfy everybody. I personally like it. It is kind of cute," said Chang.
We don't find the eyes cute at all. It has the gaze of a psychotic person that would track you down so it can come over and kick your cat. But vehicle designers are innovative, and we can see them incorporating eyeballs that activate once the car enters self-driving mode.
Heck, on some cars, the eyeballs might even be a blessing. It might just be the one thing that could make the BMW XM appealing to look at.