The future of the automotive industry may well depend on one pivotal question: Will the public ever be able to fully trust autonomous vehicles? People have been driving cars by themselves for over 100 years. That’s the only way it’s ever been done, and it’s never easy convincing people to change. But according to The Washington Post, one automaker has a creative idea up its sleeve: Jaguar Land Rover is looking to foster mainstream acceptance of self-driving cars by equipping them with “virtual eyes.” 

The idea is that a big part of people’s trust in their driving skills involves human eye contact. When you change lanes, you look at the driver next to you and make sure they’re not cutting you off; when you stop at a crosswalk, you look at the pedestrians to let them know they can cross. Without eyes, a self-driving car can’t make these simple cues. That’s why Jaguar Land Rover is fixing this problem by giving its robotic “drivers” cartoonish-looking plastic googly eyes. The eyes, which Jaguar employees discuss internally as “intelligent pods,” should make it easier for people to trust a car without a human behind the wheel.

“It’s second nature to glance at the driver of the approaching vehicle before stepping into the road,” said Pete Bennett, future mobility research manager at Jaguar Land Rover. “Understanding how this translates in tomorrow’s more automated world is important.” 

It’s unclear whether people will come around to the idea of self-driving vehicles. Thus far, they’ve been apprehensive. A 2018 study from the American Automobile Association found that 63 percent of U.S. drivers are “afraid” to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle. That’s down from down from 78 percent a year ago, but it’s still high, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of the self-driving car industry.

Still, though, the automakers are going to keep trying. Jaguar Land Rover is far from the only company working on autonomous vehicles that can communicate with humans. Nissan is working on vehicles with exterior panels that transmit messages such as “waiting for you to cross,” and a Mountain View-based startup called Drive.ai is working on autonomous ferries that give people rides around their geo-fenced office park complexes in Silicon Valley. People’s attitudes about self-driving cars are still evolving and so, too, is the technology.

About 

Martin Ackerman is a freelance writer and current editor originally from Staten Island, NY. His university schooling focused on English education and Japanese. He has a (not so secret) passion for art history and political science. When he isn't writing or editing you can find him at sci-tech conventions, building the latest LEGO city or pampering his cat, Tea. You can follow him on Twitter @MarMackerman.