Ford Tries the Impossible: Getting Drivers to Like Cyclists through VR

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all just got along? You know, “love thy neighbour” and all that? Well, it would be nice but that’s not how the world we live in works. It’s a rat race. Everyone is trying to accomplish their own thing. Inevitably we will get in each other’s way. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between people who drive cars and those who ride bicycles.

Cyclists always seem to be hogging their road and simply refuse to use the sidewalk for some reason. Motorists, for their part, almost make a sport of giving these two-wheeled road aliens close calls. Until all cars are driven by benevolent robots both drivers and cyclists need to get along. This might be harder than getting peace in the Middle East, but Ford is taking a crack at it and because they’re using VR as a part of the solution I now have to write about it, so here goes.

Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings

As a social species, humans have a few useful psychological tools that help us get along. One of these is something called “empathy”, which literally refers to the ability to put yourself in another person’s place to understand their position. It’s different from “sympathy” which just means that you feel sorry for someone else.

Now Ford wants to help foster some bi-directional empathy by letting motorists and cyclist feel what it’s like when the shoe is on the other pedal. It’s called Wheelswap and it’s part of their Share the Road initiative.

On Your Worst Behaviour

Using the VR software, cyclists can experience the frustration themselves. The virtual cyclists will run over red lights, swerve without warning and ride up one-way streets. It’s unclear if they will also flip the bird or kick your wing-mirrors off. Which is really essential to a realistic simulation.

Drivers are put on a virtual bicycle and get to feel the pressure as cars overtake too closely or fail to use their indicators. There’s also the classic, slapstick door opening without checking if a cyclist is there.

Does It Work?

Ford’s research shows that about 60 percent of people who go through this empathy exercise change their road behaviour in the weeks that follow, although I guess it will take a little more Clockwork Orange brainwashing for it to be permanent, but it’s a start!

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