gif: NBC Washington (screengrabs)

An apparent self-driving Ford Transit Connect confused quite a few people last week as it drove through Arlington, Virginia. Then folks got even more confused when that “self-driving car” ended up being a guy dressed up as a car seat. Now we know that all of this was just part of Virginia Tech’s transportation research.

Earlier this month, you might have read about a mysterious self-driving van in northern Virginia, and then later, you might have seen some videos of NBC Washington’s Adam Tuss hilariously confronting a man dressed up in a car-seat costume, saying: “Brother who are you? What are you doing? I’m with the news, dude.”

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Well, we’ve now got answers, as the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute issued a press release on Monday addressing the automated vehicle-related testing it’s conducting in Arlington.

The Blacksburg-based research institute said the purpose of its study is to learn about “human behavior in the presence of new technology in the real world.” In particular, Virginia Tech is looking to investigate “the potential need for additional exterior signals on automated vehicles,” with key focus on the reactions of pedestrians, cyclists and human drivers.

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The research lab says such a study can have real value to both automakers and policymakers.

The organization worked with Arlington officials to plan this study, and chose the county because of its high density, saying it represents “the urban areas for which automated vehicles are currently being considered.” The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute describes the setup of this Guy In A Car-Seat Costume experiment, saying:

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...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.

I called Mindy King from, a spokesperson for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and she told me the lab didn’t want to delve too deep into details, in part, because of concern over “dirtying the data,” saying:

Ideally we don’t want people to react differently than they ordinarily would if they didn’t know about the study.

The fact that something so silly is actually part of important scientific research is pretty hilarious, and honestly sounds like a lot of fun for people who probably spend much of their time crunching hard data behind computers.

The results of the research will eventually be made public, and I for one, am looking forward to seeing a brilliant, nerdy research paper come from this Man In A Car-Seat Costume.