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Automated Driving 7 min read

Debate worth having: should automated vehicles “hide in plain sight"?

Autonomous vehicle driving on road toward camera

Should the public know when automated vehicles are on the roads? A viral video of a policeman stopping a driverless car has brought the question to the fore.

Nighttime in San Francisco. Spotting a vehicle that doesn't appear to have its headlights on, a police officer signals to the driver to stop. As he gets closer, the officer realizes something.

“Ain't nobody in it!" he says.

This spooky scene could belong in a sci-fi movie, but it really happened. The video of the Cruise robotaxi pulling away and driving across an intersection, apparently unfazed by the police interest, went viral. People were apparently entertained at the sight of the cops scratching their heads as they tried to figure out what to do, and even the law enforcement officers themselves could be heard laughing.

But it also highlighted an issue that will become increasingly important: should we know when automated vehicles are on the roads?

Driverless Futures project at the University of London considered this issue in more detail. They surveyed experts to find out what they thought. The consensus from a sample of 4,800 UK citizens was clear: 87% agreed with the statement: “It must be clear to other road users if a vehicle is driving itself." Just 4% disagreed, with the rest saying they were not sure. Another shorter survey of experts found however that nearly half agreed, while almost a third did not think such vehicles should be identified.

The academics concluded that this was far from a straightforward question with a simple answer.



When a vehicle is being tested, those included in the experiment can give informed consent Liability: Labeling could imply the other drivers, not the manufacturer, bear responsibility for the driverless car
Self-driving vehicles might behave differently – identifying them gives drivers a chance to respond If other drivers know a vehicle is automated, they may behave differently, affecting any data collected
Drivers might need to give automated vehicles a wide berth for safety Labeling automated cars could add to the burden of regulation slowing down innovation in the sphere

Why label automated vehicles

One of the reasons some say it is a good idea to identify any driverless vehicles on the roads is if they are being tested. It is only ethical, they say, for anyone else who finds themselves in that experiment to be able to consent to it.

For others, it is a straightforward safety concern. Self-driving vehicles – at various levels of automation – might behave differently. It is better for drivers if they can steer clear when necessary.

However, that is exactly the reason some scientists would not like to see this happen. If people on the roads behave differently when they see an automated vehicle, that will affect the data they gather, and ultimately the vehicle's ability to learn how to behave on the roads.

Adding another distraction for drivers or more complexity to the legal and ethical minefields that must be figured out for automation to progress is another disadvantage.


Fully hands-free vehicles are already being tested on the roads in certain conditions and areas.


It is a fact that vehicles that are not driven by humans will shape the way our roads operate, as we will react differently to them. As Jack Stilgoe, the professor of science and technology at the University of London who conducted the research, wrote: “An engineer might argue that what matters is what a vehicle does on the road. But others will want to know who or what is in control.

“This becomes particularly important in situations like pedestrian crossings, which often rely on two-way communication. A pedestrian may make eye contact with a driver to make sure they have been seen. A driver may reassure a pedestrian by waving them across. In the absence of such signals, such interactions may need to be redesigned."

What could labeling look like?

Speaking to HERE360, futurist Rohit Salwar said that initially, automated vehicles could be identified with a written label like the ones on emergency vehicles, or even a flashing light as we see on police cars.

As technology gets more advanced however, this information could be passed from vehicle to vehicle automatically.

“As we put more and more intelligence into our vehicles, we'll get something that tells our vehicle there's a driverless car on our SatNav systems," he said.

In-vehicle alerts are already commonplace for other Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, such as Intelligent Speed Assistance. Extremely accurate maps are one of the cornerstones of highly automated driving, improving safety, comfort and reliability.

There is an industry-wide drive towards standardization for self-driving cars, as automakers recognize this is key to progress. For example, Ford has shared the results of its studies in finding ways for self-driving cars to communicate intent. The company has called for all self-driving vehicle developers, automakers and technology companies who are committed to deploying SAE level-4 vehicles to share ideas and work together.

"We need a common language for how the vehicle will communicate with its surroundings," said Tim Wouda, Senior Manager, Product Management, Automated Driving Solutions at HERE. "Besides the digital V2X communications (Vehicle-to-Anything), this would also need visual communications with other road users."

"It is one thing to prove external Human-Machine interactions in research, and quite another to handshake this across countries and create adoption across car manufacturers."

He pointed out that any solution requires the industry to cooperate with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the Automated Driving Coordination Group of the International Organization of Standardization (ISO) to define standard forms of Human-Machine communication.

As vehicles advance through the SAE levels of automated driving, it may be less obvious to the casual observer by their external design that they are any different from traditional cars. Large lidar sensors will get smaller and the cars will look like any other. It will only be once they get close enough that it becomes obvious there is no one behind the wheel.

This is exactly what happened to the San Francisco police in that viral video – but soon enough they could get a warning that would prevent them from getting the shock of their lives.


Beth McLoughlin 2023

Beth McLoughlin

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