This Merc S-Class concept has flashing lights to help humans

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‘Co-operative concept’ wears 360-degree lights to help us understand autonomous cars

Teaching a fully self-driving car to negotiate its way around a city, in all weathers, at any time of day, is an incredibly difficult task. But that’s by no means the end of the variables. What happens when the auto-automobile of the future has to interact with the fleshy human species it’s sharing the city with?

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Mercedes thinks the idea might be flashing lights. Makes sense, on face value. We already depend on flashing lights to interpret when a car nearby is intending to make a turn. Or to give way. Or to bully its way past in a badly timed overtake. (Only one of these scenarios applies to Audi drivers.)

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Enter the Mercedes S-Class ‘co-operative concept’. While a fully-self-driving Mercedes is by no means a reality yet, Mercedes says “people need to be able to quickly and reliably gauge what an autonomous vehicle is going to do next. The vehicle must therefore provide information about its intentions in a way that people can grasp immediately and intuitively”. And that’s why this S-Class is fitted with a family of friendly flashing lights.

Pay attention, here’s the big explanation of what to look out for, straight from Benz’s mouth: “Turquoise light strips in the windscreen, the radiator grille, the headlamps, the exterior mirrors and the lower area of the windows indicate to pedestrians and surrounding traffic that the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode.” So, if you see turquoise, the machine has taken over. So far, so simple.

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“Lamps on the roof provide information about the next actions that the vehicle is going to perform. Slow flashing means that the vehicle is braking.” Or you could look out for the brake lights…

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“The lights on the roof also follow the movements of people at the side of the road and in front of the vehicle to signal that the vehicle is aware of their presence. In doing so, the cooperative vehicle recreates the natural eye contact that would have taken place between the driver and pedestrians. Rapid flashing indicates that it is about to move off.” Brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘mobile disco’, doesn’t it?

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In addition, a lairy neon flash from under the vehicle means Vin Diesel is driving and is about to steal some TVs in a stylish high-octane heist. Or maybe we’ve seen too many movies.

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The system of light animations is certainly a more German way of getting a car to communicate with trust than Jaguar Land Rover’s idea of fitting autonomous pods with giant sad googly eyes. Because eye contact means trust. And awkwardness.

Which do you think makes most sense, internet?

STORY Ollie Kew

Author: TopGear
Top Gear is a British television series about motor vehicles, primarily cars, and is the most widely watched factual television programme in the world.