This Self-Driving Car Smiles At Pedestrians To Let Them Know It’s Safe To Cross

Even when algorithms are driving our cars, we still need to find a way to recreate the subtle interactions that keep us safe on the streets.

When you’re standing on a street corner waiting to cross, you probably try to make eye contact with the driver of the car in your path. That way, you and the driver create some sort of understanding that they won’t slam their car into you. With self-driving cars, obviously, that doesn’t really work. So the Sweden-based engineering firm Semcon proposes tweaking the technology: their new “Smiling Car” concept lights up with a smile to show that it has detected you and isn’t going to run you over.


“A lot of the discussions regarding self-driving cars are about the car’s technology,” Semcon user experience designer Karin Ecklund said in a press release. “But how these vehicles will interact with unprotected road users is just as important. Self-driving cars need to communicate in a way that feels familiar and creates trust.”

In a survey, the company found that less than half of pedestrians trust self-driving cars today. In the U.S., only 15% of respondents said that they would feel “very confident” that a self-driving car in front of them would actually stop. The designers also rigged up a car to appear self-driving, and watched reactions–most pedestrians looked either terrified or angry.

With more development, the designers say that eye-tracking and laser technology could do an even better job–detecting small head or eye movements to better understand where a pedestrian is going.

The Smiling Car concept is part of a long-term project to help create a global standard for how self-driving cars communicate on the road. But it also seems like it could be a useful feature for regular cars: when it’s hard to see a driver, a smiling bumper could make crossing a dangerous street a lot less stressful.

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it’s interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.