With the absence of a human driver, Drive.ai’s vehicles use multi-color LED panels to communicate with people in the surrounding environment, including pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists.
Think about the last time you crossed the street in front of a car, or arrived at a stop sign at the same time as another driver. You probably looked at the driver for a signal of some kind, maybe a hand-waving gesture or eye contact. In place of a driver, our self-driving vehicle utilizes LED panels to communicate these same messages.
This design was featured at two museums (see below) and the concept became US Patent US011001196
I championed and led these panels from an early idea to the state they are now, working with a visual designer (who also supported the user testing) and the Drive.ai hardware and software teams
♦ Specifying locations for panels on all sides of the car at eye level and appropriate sizes, to also work within hardware and vehicle constraints
♦ Identifying what messages were important to show and when they should be shown
♦ Creating multiple generations of visual designs and craftingthe right wording for the panels, iterating and refining through user input, done together with my talented visual designer Scott Rossi
♦ Working with the hardware and firmware engineers to make them bright and easy to read even in direct sunlight, and
♦ Multiple rounds of user testing to ensure we found an effective solution to communicate well with both those who spoke English and those who don't
The Implemented Design:
Design Process and Details:
We did iterative testing with people to continually refine the panels’ graphics and wording, finding the sweet spot between too many words and too few. For example, “Waiting For You To Cross” was both too verbose and forced text to be small, while “Waiting” by itself was less clear to people as whether we were waiting for them or something else. "Waiting for You" found just the right balance.
The testing process includes evaluating whether the panels communicate effectively without relying on text, to accommodate non-English speakers. We decided to employ animation instead of static images to better communicate meaning, as well as grab visual attention. (We found the clarity of the panels increased when we did not anti-alias the text or images, which is why they are not smooth.)
We took the approach of using green to notify pedestrians and drivers they can go, red when they should stop and wait, yellow for warnings, and orange as a reference to their vehicles. The panels never tell pedestrians they should cross the street though, because the vehicle cannot speak for what other drivers or bicyclists will do.
A rear panel notifies people behind the vehicle when a pedestrian is crossing, so drivers know not to pass (a safety advantage over standard cars).
We also indicate when a person is currently driving manually, so others on the road should check that the driver sees them just as with a traditional car.
These panels have tested extremely well with users, both in terms of people understanding their meaning and appreciating their existence on our vehicles running in Texas and California.
They are one of the most unique and identifiable aspects of our self-driving cars vs. our competition, also providing a differentiator and branding as well as improving safety. Almost every news article about our vehicles discusses these panels as a key aspect of the vehicles, such as this Car and Driver May 2018 article.
Beyond that, these panels were featured at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum as part of their 'The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility' exhibit in early 2019. It included a live demo of the panel (mounted on a life-size wall print of part of our vans for context) and a poster near it which shows the history of the panel designs. Both were our design as well, coordinating with the museum for layout approval.
Having a design I led featured in a prominent design museum, especially as part of an exhibit of significant and noteworthy design ideas in transportation, is one of the most satisfying results of my career.
Photo from Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in New York:
Even better, when the Cooper-Hewitt museum exhibit completed, the Science Museum in London decided to feature our panels in their exhibit about future transportation as well, and the display went on to being shown there next.