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“Driverless” Van Includes Driver Dressed As Car Seat, For Science

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A “driverless” van that has been spotted cruising the streets of Arlington, VA, isn’t actually operating autonomously: There’s a man behind the wheel — but he’s dressed as a seat. And though it may sound like a prank, it’s all in the name of science.

NBC-4 reports that a van that appeared not to have a driver has been causing a stir around town recently. This caused some consternation, not because people aren’t used to seeing driverless tech, but because it’s not yet legal or approved for testing everywhere in Virginia — only on certain roads [PDF]. And not in this neighborhood.

But when the station’s report got a peek inside the van this week, he saw a man dressed in a costume designed to look like a car seat — with his face completely covered like a sports mascot— sitting in the driver’s seat.

“Brother, who are you? What are you doing? I’m with the news, dude,” NBC reporter Adam Tuss asks the man in the car. “Dude, can you pull over and we can talk for a second?”

Alas, he did not answer.

No laughing matter

You may be thinking this is a prank — heck, we’ve seen robots and skeletons going through fast food drive-thrus, as well as a very similar “invisible driver” stunt a few years ago.

As it turns out, however, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute says the man and his van are part of a very real study on driverless cars, one “one of many being conducted to determine how best to design automated vehicles.” He was just dressed for his day’s work.

“The driver’s seating area is configured to make the driver less visible within the vehicle, while still allowing him or her the ability to safely monitor and respond to surroundings,” the institute said in a press release on Monday.

In addition, VTTI says that development of the test vehicle “focused on ensuring driver safety and included several months of piloting and testing the vehicle, first in controlled areas, then in low-density areas and finally in an urban area.”

County officials were included during the planning of the project, VTTI notes.

However, a Virginia Department of Transportation rep told NBC-4 they were not aware of the vehicle, while the Arlington Police Department expressed shock at the news of the van.

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