It's still a couple of months until Halloween, but some in Arlington, Va., are already dressing up—as car seats. An NBC Washington reporter spotted a seemingly autonomous van driving around Arlington on Monday. On closer inspection, he realized there actually was a driver—the man was just disguised as a car seat, his face and torso hidden and only his hands visible gripping the lowest point of the steering wheel, out of sight of passers-by. As the reporter soon discovered, "Car Seat Man" is part of a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study aiming to discover how an autonomous vehicle—unable to wave or nod to pedestrians, for example—can better respond to its surroundings, reports Wired.
"There's a lot of debate right now about whether autonomous vehicles need signs of some sort to communicate their intent," says an expert at MIT. Companies including Google are actually experimenting with car-mounted displays that could convey messages to pedestrians to avoid confusion. But first, experts need to understand how onlookers respond to autonomous vehicles. A 2015 Stanford study that also required drivers to dress as car seats found 97% of pedestrians trusted an autonomous vehicle enough to walk in front of it at crosswalks. It seems Virginia Tech's study will be more wide-ranging. The institute, which is keeping mum for now, plans to release its findings at a later date. (Lyft has teamed up with Alphabet's self-driving wing.)