These Silly Eyes May Make Self-Driving Cars Safer, Researchers Say

If the car isn’t looking at you, it doesn’t notice you. Seems straightforward enough.

byPeter Holderith|
Self-Driving Tech photo
AdonisChang via YouTube

Autonomous vehicles like robotaxis would be so much easier to develop if they didn't have to avoid pedestrians. No, that's not an Elon Musk quote, just a musing. The fact that researchers at the University of Tokyo put big eyes on a car to try to solve the problem of pedestrians is proof. Yes, they put big eyes on an autonomous car that looks at the people its sensors are paying attention to. If it's not staring at you, don't walk in front of it.

In a study that included nine men, researchers found that putting eyes on an AV could reduce unsafe crossings by as much as 64%. Is it really that simple? The full paper provides a more nuanced look at what actually happened.

Nine women were also involved along with the men. In their case, adding eyes made crossing the street no safer, at least not in a statistically significant way. This seems to be because, at least as far as this study goes, women were more careful about crossing the street to begin with.

The paper explains that men exhibit different street-crossing behavior as compared to women. For instance, the male participants were asked to subjectively evaluate how much the eyes affected their decision to cross. They mostly said it didn't make a difference to them where the eyes were looking—even though adding the eyes reduced the number of unsafe crossings. The replies from the female study group were much more diverse and inconclusive.

As far as perceived safety goes, the female respondents overwhelmingly said that they felt safer when the car was equipped with big eyeballs. Men didn't seem to care. In terms of how the two groups liked the car having eyeballs in the first place, the results were a consistent "meh."

One obvious problem with this solution is that the eyes can only focus on one person at a time. That is unless they go cockeyed or there are multiple sets of eyes. I actually can't think of any good solution to the problem of multiple pedestrians with this setup. Either the car has a lot of eyes which is creepy, its eyes dart around rapidly to the many targets it sees which is creepy, or its two individual eyes simultaneously track different pedestrians. I actually have a word in mind to describe that last solution.

The study addresses this problem with the fact that when people normally cross the street in front of a car, they'll look at the driver of the vehicle to ensure they're paying attention. Even if there are other pedestrians around, they get the sense from the driver's face that they understand the human obstruction ahead of them. Whether this translates into a car having a face is more abstract, though. More research is definitely needed.

For now, though, the small scope of the study leaves its hypothesis more open to criticism. Do you want eyes on autonomous vehicles? What about other facial features? I think autonomous cars should have personalities and moods. Friendly cars, mean cars, I don't live in a city center anyway so I don't have to deal with it. To me, it would just be funny.

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