Fake Self-Driving Van with Man Dressed as Car Seat Fools Virginia Residents, Local News

Pay no attention to the man behind the vinyl.

byKyle Cheromcha| UPDATED Aug 8, 2017 4:06 PM
Fake Self-Driving Van with Man Dressed as Car Seat Fools Virginia Residents, Local News

The sight of what appeared to be a fully-autonomous van being testing without a driver inside on the streets of Arlington, Virginia last week understandably caused a bit of a stir across the region. But as NBC Washington discovered Monday, the truth isn't quite that futuristic—although it is a whole lot weirder.

Local news blog ARLnow.com first spotted the Ford Transit Connect cruising around the city on Thursday, featuring a weird light bar and camera rig on the windshield, blacked-out side and rear windows, and of course, the apparent lack of a driver—or any other person in the van. The website posted a brief article speculating on the "autonomous" car's origins, along with a video showing the highly-capable Transit Connect driving through downtown Arlington like any other car. Only a few pedestrians seem to notice the empty driver's seat in the video, but they seem (understandably) shocked. 

The story quickly spread from there, highlighted on both DCist.com and national publications like Business Insider. Reporters and commentators all wondered whether the autonomous van could be tied to Virginia's recent decision to open up certain stretches of highway for testing self-driving technology, and whether one of the many military contractors in the region could be behind the effort.

We at The Drive were also pretty surprised when the ARLnow.com video popped up last week, and more than a little suspicious. To start, there's a conspicuous lack of a lidar rig or other external sensors that companies with advanced efforts like Uber, Waymo, and Apple have come to rely on. Even if the van was using some sort of camera-based system similar to what Tesla runs, that wouldn't explain the Knight Rider-esque light bar. And can you really get away with having no humans on board?

As it turns out, no. NBC Washington reporter Adam Tuss saw the van driving on Monday and caught up to it at a stop light, got out, looked inside, and discovered a man wearing a car seat disguise behind the wheel. The video is pretty surreal—Tuss tries to ask the driver a few questions, but the man (or legs, rather) never even acknowledges his presence. Tuss also tweeted that the van ran a red light in a bid to get away from him.

So assuming this guy wasn't just on his way to a drive-thru, what's the deal? NBC Washington reports the van and its sentient driver's seat are part of a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study on autonomous cars people were speculating about last week. As Gizmodo points out, this little experiment was likely tied to exploring the public's response to self-driving cars.

In response to all this, the Institute issued a statement on Monday confirming that the driver was wearing the correct "uniform," which is designed to "driver less visible within the vehicle, while still allowing him or her the ability to safely monitor and respond to surroundings."