For more than a century now, internal combustion engines have provided the soundtrack to cities. Pedestrians and cyclists become alert when they hear an approaching engine, and we can tell without looking whether a car is speeding up or slowing down. Indicator signals tells us about the intentions of a car, while the horn has been our go-to sound to communicate potential danger (or irritation) to unsuspecting road users.
On top of that, there is the eye contact between road users that establishes the fact that “yes, I see you” – a simple, but oh-so-important conversation starter for any type of communication in traffic. But in the future, we’ll have autonomous electric cars smoothly coast up to crossings with no driver in sight. If you’re a pedestrian, where does that friendly “go ahead” wave come from? And how can the quiet, driverless car catch your attention if you’re just about to step out in front of it?
Strangely, perhaps some inspiration can be found underwater. Volvo Cars is researching a groundbreaking new technology that uses ultrasounds via parametric speakers to “ping” pedestrians and cyclists, similar to a submarine’s sonar. This ping is essentially an ultrasonic sound beam which is targeted directly at a pedestrian or cyclist. When bouncing off the target’s body, the sound beam is modulated into a frequency range that only they can hear.
They are effectively alerted to the car’s presence, and nobody else is disturbed. While this technology is in the developmental stages, it’s all part of Volvo’s efforts to create a universally understandable, and therefore safe, language for autonomous cars. The Volvo 360c autonomous concept car is a starting point for that development and has been drawn up from theories around what our cities will look and sound like in a future with autonomous cars. It explores the type of communication Volvo believes will be needed in cars of the future. It uses a combination of external sounds, coloured lights, and even subtle movements to communicate the vehicle’s intentions to other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
Now, while it’s far from the definitive solution, it shines a light on what is important when trying to give cars a new way of communicating with the world around it. If we want autonomous traffic to be as safe as possible, we need a universal language for autonomous cars that is quick and easy to pick up.
The human body language can be a great source of inspiration for that, as many of its signals are universally understood. By tapping into something that has been so deeply ingrained in humans for thousands of years, Volvo hopes to make it possible for everyone to understand the intentions of an autonomous car, even if it’s in a whole new environment which we can’t predict in any way.
PHOTO CREDIT: VOLVO