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How do you get people to trust autonomous vehicles? This company is giving them ‘virtual eyes.’

The idea is being studied by a team of engineers and psychologists.

In an effort to create trust between pedestrians and self-driving vehicles, Jaguar Land Rover has developed a driverless pod with eyes that signal the vehicle's intent to human observers. (Jaguar Land Rover) (Jaguar Landrover)

One of the biggest challenges facing car companies developing driverless vehicles has little to do with sophisticated robotics or laser technology.

Instead, they must figure out how to engineer something far more amorphous but no less important: human trust, the kind that is communicated when drivers and pedestrians make eye contact at a crosswalk.

Surveys indicate that large portions of the public harbor deep reservations about the safety of self-driving technology, so Jaguar Land Rover enlisted the help of cognitive psychologists to unpack “how vehicle behaviour affects human confidence in new technology,” the British automaker said in a news release.

Its solution for answering that question: virtual eyes, a large cartoonish pair that brings to mind the plastic googly eyes you probably glued onto projects in elementary school.

The eyes have been fitted to autonomous vehicles known as “intelligent pods.” Devised by a team of engineers, the eyes seek out nearby pedestrians before “looking” directly at them –– silently signaling that the vehicle sees them and plans to remain stationary so they can pass by, the company said.

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Before and after the interaction, engineers record trust levels to determine whether human test subjects experienced sufficient levels of confidence in the pod, the company said. So far, more than 500 people have been observed interacting with the expressive vehicles, but the company hasn’t released details about the interactions.

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

Other industries have applied eyes to robots, as well. The industrial robot Baxter has a tablet-like face with a pair of eyes that are designed to communicate the robot’s intentions to nearby human workers, such as concentration when the machine is working or sadness when it’s broken.

People are not only uneasy about interacting with self-driving vehicles — they’re also apprehensive about riding inside them.

Earlier this year, an AAA study found that 63 percent of U.S. drivers report feeling afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle, down from 78 percent a year earlier.

Male drivers and millennials are most trusting of autonomous technology, with only half reporting fear of riding inside a fully autonomous car, according to AAA, which has begun urging automakers to educate consumers about autonomous transportation. Despite more than 90 percent of crashes resulting from human error, most drivers consider their driving skills better than average and are leery of handing over control of their vehicle to a machine, the study noted.

“Americans are starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of self-driving vehicles,” Greg Brannon, AAA automotive engineering and industry relations director, said in February. “Compared to just a year ago, AAA found that 20 million more U.S. drivers would trust a self-driving vehicle to take them for a ride.”

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Jaguar Land Rover is not the only company exploring how to broadcast messages between autonomous vehicles and pedestrians.

This summer, a Mountain View, Calif.-based start-up known as launched a pilot program in Frisco, Tex. The company’s bright orange vehicles autonomously ferry people around a geo-fenced office-park complex where about 10,000 people work, eat and shop.

The words “self-driving vehicle” wrap around their Nissan NV200 vans, and the vehicles also include exterior panels with messages — such as “waiting for you to cross” — to take the place of a human driver making eye contact or gesturing with a pedestrian at a crosswalk.

Company officials have pointed out that self-driving cars still “don’t understand certain complex situations such as a construction worker communicating using hand gestures.”

Jaguar Land Rover’s intelligent pods have yet to venture into the real world and instead operate on a “fabricated street scene” in Coventry, England, the company said.