Dawn of the ghost riders

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter



To find out where low-tech testing fits into our pursuit of autonomy, Alice will ask:

  • What is ghost riding?
  • What do ghost riding experiments tell us about public acceptance of driverless tech?
  • Are we ready to welcome driverless vehicles onto our roads?

Ghost rider 2025AD
Source: https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2020/04/ghostdrivers-test-cultural-reactions-autonomous-cars

Testing is a topic which often comes up in any discussion of driverless tech. And yes, rigorous testing on various routes, in varied weather conditions and with all sorts of scenarios thrown in is vital to the development of reliable autonomous vehicles (AVs). But when it comes to testing what the general public think of self-driving cars, a decidedly low-tech experiment known as ghost riding is proving incredibly revealing.


You want to know more about how this data could improve autonomous cars and their ability to do a better job at driving in the darkness than humans? Read our article "Prince of Darkness: Autonomous vehicles at night".


What is ghost riding?

Cars without drivers are an unusual sight and even autonomous vehicles travelling around places like San Francisco and Palo Alto usually have an engineer behind the wheel. Precisely because of that, it’s incredibly difficult to measure how people react to cars with no drivers during regular AV testing.


Ghost riding provides a simple solution. Most of us will recognise it as a prank that’s been entertaining viewers for at least the past decade. To perform the trick, a driver conceals themselves within a car seat to create the illusion of a self-driving vehicle with no passengers, and no one at the steering wheel.

Ghost riding has now been the subject of much conversation, advertising campaigns and, more importantly, several serious studies into public attitudes towards driverless tech.



What do ghost riding experiments tell us?

One of the very first tests of this kind was run by Stanford University back in 2017 and it revealed some interesting truths. Sticker and mounted cameras (actually used to record reactions) gave the test car the look of a true AV, so, even before they peered through the windscreen, pedestrians had all the visual cues to expect no driver.


This goes some way to explaining the results: the way people walked around the car stayed relatively normal; most exhibited curiosity, not fear; and of the 67 people crossing near the car, only two tried to avoid coming close. Most were pleased with its performance and 95% of those asked said the car did what they expected it to.


More recent studies, led by a team from Cornell and conducted in several countries over more than five years, show that though most are accepting of AVs, there is important variation. Generally, people still moved relatively normally around the car, but they took longer to cross the street in front of it, particularly when in groups. Some of this is down to pure curiosity, but outside of the city there was more to suggest this may have been caused by fear of the unknown.


Testing in Mexico was particularly revealing. While in Mexico City passers-by were unphased, those in Colima, a smaller coastal town, often stopped in front of the car. Ultimately these tests have shown that most are curious about, not fearful of, the new technology. However, the varied reactions prompted by ghost riders suggests that the uptake of driverless vehicles will differ along cultural lines, with larger cities being the first ‘testing grounds’ for the tech.

Driverless vehicles 2025AD
Source: https://medium.com/self-driven/how-self-driving-cars-could-communicate-with-you-in-the-future-e814d276937f

Why is it important to test public acceptance of AVs?

It’s true that AVs could be developed without this extra level of low-tech testing, but it’s only through measuring how ordinary people interact with seemingly driverless cars that we can learn if autonomous driving will be viable or not. If the public don’t accept driverless cars, then they stand no chance of replacing existing forms of transport.


A 2017 study conducted by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), in collaboration with Ford, made some interesting discoveries when they placed a ghost rider in an unmarked Ford Transit Connect van on the streets of Virginia. After collecting over 150 hours of data, the team found, as in other studies, that most were simply curious about the vehicle. But they saw another problem too – the second aspect of user interface, which covers all interaction outside the car, was virtually non-existent. With no driver present to nod or wave, pedestrians struggled to work out what the car was likely to do next.

“Understanding how self-driving vehicles impact the world as we know it today is critical to ensuring we’re creating the right experience for tomorrow,” said John Shutko, Ford’s human factors technical specialist. “We need to solve the challenges presented by not having a human driver, so designing a way to replace the head nod or hand wave is fundamental to ensuring safe and efficient operation of self-driving vehicles in our communities.” It’s this idea which inspired Semcon’s slightly unsettling smiling car and which will become more and more important when designing the external user interfaces for AVs.



Are we ready to welcome driverless vehicles onto our roads?

The results of these ghost rider tests seem to suggest so. Other research, largely conducted through surveying the public, shows that variation still exists between different social groups. For example, men, those with a higher driving mileage and those who think themselves tech-savvy are all more accepting of AVs. Findings from Capgemini Research Institute's 2019 study suggest we’re increasingly ready to ride in a driverless vehicle – 30% would do so now, but that’s expected to rise to 63% in the next decade. Ghost riding, however, has shown that even those who may not be ready to ride in an autonomous vehicle are still curious about the concept. This is great news for the future of AVs – whenever they’re ready, we will be too.


What do you think of the ghost rider trick? Is this the best way to test our natural reactions to driverless tech? What would you think if you saw a driverless car on the road today? We’re eager to hear your thoughts, so share them in the comments section below!


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