In this graphic, shows how its cars might communicate with pedestrians.

Should cars talk? Silicon Valley seeks to teach self-driving vehicles.

Start-up, a company with Stanford University roots, will be focusing on 'the brains' of the driverless car.

Many of the greatest minds in tech are working on self-driving cars that can travel safely on the road. But some say they will never be ready for the highway until they learn to talk – not just to its own passengers but pedestrians and other drivers.

A growing number of researchers are shifting their expectations of self-driving cars to include a language of signs, phrases, or emojis to replace the honking, nodding, and waving of a human driver. 

Self-driving cars need to "speak our language," or at least something similar, to become acceptable members of society, said Carol Reiley, co-founder of a Silicon Valley start-up devoted to the autonomous car's "brain."  

"My interest in robotics lies in where technology intersects with humanity," Ms. Reiley, president of, told Verge. "How do these cars actually interact with people?"

She is trying to tackle one of the toughest challenges to self-driving vehicles so far – user mistrust. A March study by AAA showed 75 percent of Americans fear the driverless cars, and only 20 percent are interested in trying one out. In fact, 39 percent of Americans don't want any autonomous features on the family car, including automated braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist. Half of this group said they know too little about such features, wrote Richard Read on The Car Connection:

AAA's findings jibe with other studies we've seen, and frankly, they're not especially surprising. Given how much trouble our laptops, desktops, smartphones, and tablets can give us, the idea of putting our lives in the hands of a computer on wheels traveling at 70 mph isn't exactly comforting. It's a big change, and it'll take some time to get used to. (News of the first accident blamed partially on an autonomous car isn't soothing anyone's nerves.) is not the only team trying to tackle this challenge using better communication. Google has already filed a patent for its communication system, which flashes messages to pedestrians at crosswalks, Business Insider reported.

BMW also has a concept car with limited autonomous driving. While driving on its own, the car uses augmented reality to project its status and plans across the windshield, communicating with both the other drivers on the road and sidewalk traffic, Tech Insider reported. This lets the car tell pedestrians waiting to cross that they are safe to go. 

Reiley's idea is to partner with members of the auto industry to get language-conscious cars on the road as soon as possible.

“So much of driving is non-verbal communication, when you’re inside the car, you’ve made eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians, you wave people across, you’ve given head nods, you’ve honked at them,” Reiley told Tech Crunch. “All these types of things are ways that a human expresses what the driver’s trying to do to communicate with other drivers on the road. So now if you take the driver out of the driver’s seat and no one’s watching the road, how do all the other people around the self-driving car now know what the car is trying to do?” aims to retrofit cars with a communications system of rooftop signs and beeps, which she says can not only equal but exceed the present state of communication on the road.

"The horn is one of the worst designed features on the car," Reiley told Verge, as the horn maintains the same pitch and volume whether warning of an impending collision or expressing support for a "Honk for Jesus" bumper sticker. She aims to create a beep system with, among other things, "more socially appropriate" honk alternatives. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Should cars talk? Silicon Valley seeks to teach self-driving vehicles.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today