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Scared of Driverless Cars? Here, Look at This Screen

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Scared of Driverless Cars? Here, Look at This Screen

Waymo will show messages to 'help ease passengers' concerns' when they're no longer in control.

If you live in the Phoenix area, you can now apply to join Waymo's "early rider program" and get chauffeured in one of the company's autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in exchange for giving feedback on your experience.

Nextcar Bug artThe project is designed to supply Waymo, the former Google self-driving car project that's now part of parent company Alphabet Inc., with info on "where people want to go in a self-driving car, how they communicate with our vehicles, and what information and controls they want to see inside," CEO John Krafcik wrote in a blog post.

Waymo outfitted the exterior of the Chrysler Pacificas with an array of proprietary LiDAR and radar sensors that act as the eyes of its self-driving system. The sensors "are deeply integrated with the brain of our self-driving cars and specially designed software" so the vehicle is fully attuned to its surroundings, according to Google.

Waymo Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan

Waymo also wants to make sure passengers are aware of what's going on around the vehicle and made several interior improvements to "help ease passengers' concerns," Waymo's technology chief Dmitri Dolgov told Bloomberg. The company gave Bloomberg a peek at a mockup of these interior upgrades, which include a dashboard display that shows other cars, pedestrians, and buildings around the vehicle "to give people confidence that the car is competent and in control."

Some vehicles were "lit up if they were relevant to the situation," while "others were shown less prominently," Bloomberg reports. The idea is to show what a Waymo vehicle's sensors "see" and how the self-driving system closely monitors some cars more than others, the way a human driver would.

Waymo minivan

The display also includes the outlines of buildings to help orient passengers to the world around them and flashes the message "waiting for intersection to clear" when the vehicle yields to traffic to make a turn at a traffic light. It can also inform occupants why the car is braking suddenly, such as for an animal in the road.

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In other words, now that self-driving technology is getting to a point where Google is inviting the public along for the ride, the next step is creating a user interface for people who are used to being in control of a car.

Making the Experience Magical

To help figure this out, Waymo cherry-picked user design experts who have worked on Google's Android operating system and Chrome browser, Bloomberg noted. It also recruited a "user experience" researcher who's tasked with making the experience in the company's self-driving vehicles "intuitive, accessible, fun—and even magical."

Whether it's clueless drivers staring at their phones and drifting off course or some jerk aggressively cutting you off at high speeds, a close call in car is never fun or magical. And while I'm confident driverless cars will handle situations like this better than humans, how will humans handle it when they're not in command?


It will take more than just a message on a dashboard screen to prepare and comfort passengers in autonomous cars. Perhaps Google UI experts should consider the work done by the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass, who conducted a study he called Car-Tharsis that explored ways in which a car can keep drivers from getting stressed out using voice prompts.

The strategy used what Nass called cognitive reframing that "involves not letting the negative emotion start in the first place" he told me for a Wired article in 2008, way before the current self-driving car craze. "So rather than try to repair the emotion, you try to prevent it," he added. "Someone cuts you off and the car says, 'Five miles ahead, the road will clear,' something that changes your view from anger to something more positive."

Or maybe the car could hurl insults at inconsiderate drivers. I admit that in my case that would probably help. What do you think self-driving cars should do to soothe savage commuters?

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