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What It’s Like To See The World As A Self-Driving Car

This souped-up buggy lets regular people “drive” the way autonomous vehicles drive. It doesn’t always end well.

What It’s Like To See The World As A Self-Driving Car
[Photo: Moovel]

What do self-driving cars “see?” To humans eyes it would look absurd, since people and machines have very different ways of perceiving the world. But for a group of researchers from Moovel Lab, explaining how autonomous cars operate will be an important part of their introduction to society. So they built a hybrid.

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Their experimental vehicle puts you in the literal driver’s seat of a driverless car. You lay on your stomach inside of the small buggy, which is outfitted the sensors and cameras you’d find in a normal self-driving car. Meanwhile, you control the buggy with a small steering wheel. The catch? You’re wearing a VR headset, and all you can see is the sensor data an autonomous vehicle “sees.” That includes a stereoscopic map of the surroundings, visual object detection, and readings from the car’s LiDAR sensor, which measures the distances between the car and objects in the world.

[Photo: Moovel]
These technologies become the only way you can navigate through the world. It’s a far cry from what you’d see looking out a windshield; instead, there’s a hazy outline of objects in a grayscale world. The object recognition software tells you what objects you’re seeing, paired with a percentage denoting how certain the algorithm is about its identification of each object.

One participant’s initial reaction when asked to drive using just this information? “I feel like I’m drunk driving, to be honest with you.”

The project, called “Who Wants to Be a Self-Driving Car?,” is meant as a way to help humans empathize with autonomous vehicles. It’s also an exercise in trust and transparency. As a driver, you can see exactly what kinds of information the car would be using to make real-time decisions on the road as you’re weighing how to make those decisions yourself. For self-driving car makers, building trust with drivers is important, otherwise no one will buy or use their vehicles. But it’s even more important that AV makers ensure drivers understand how self-driving cars operate so people don’t trust cars too much.

The car’s sensors act like the replacement for the driver’s senses–almost forcing each driver to trust that technology will translate the world accurately. For some, this was more than a little uncomfortable. “I don’t want to be a self driving car!” one participant said. Still, zooming through the streets in a sensor-equipped go-cart while wearing a VR headset is one–clever and funny–way to put humans in the driver’s’ seat of the conversation around autonomy and AI.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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