I went to a workshop the other day and heard that a major vehicle manufacturer had adopted the use of touch screen control panels for all of their products. The speaker had been employed to study the human factors associated with these. His talk was very disturbing – drivers needed more visual attention to use these things effectively as they needed fine motor control (and therefore visual attention) to press the correct area on the screen for their selection, especially if the vehicle was pitching due to the road surface or other conditions. It made me wonder what bright spark in the company had decided that these displays were a good way to go. When we are trying so hard to reduce mobile phone and texting use because of the clear and significant problems they pose to road safety, we have a vehicle manufacturer that decides to integrate something into the vehicle which will undo everything that road safety authorities have so far done in this area due to a lack of understanding of the issues involved.
I thought that we had learned from the initial BMW iDrive that technology for its own sake is not necessarily the way to go. It speaks volumes that BMW now have a very much enhanced vehicle control system which includes haptic feedback so that there is nowhere near the impact on visual resources that the original design had. And that’s good as the more visual attention is focused on the road, the safer all users will be (put it this way – if a driver is not looking at the external visual field there is no way that they can perceive and react to a potentially dangerous situation).
It made me call to mind a conversation with an engineer who was working on electric vehicles. He said that they would incorporate noise into the car to emulate the typical sound of current cars. He insisted that it was the only way to retain safety for pedestrians. It called to mind the situation where a man with a red flag used to signal the approach of ‘horseless carriages’ when they were first introduced in the late nineteenth century. Why would you introduce noise into the environment when it may not be necessary – surely that is one of the advantages of electric vehicles? Imagine a city with substantially less road noise (and perhaps more liveable?) as a result.
One disadvantage of course is that the auditory warning provided to pedestrians and other users would not be present, but I’m sure that we have the technology to overcome this aspect. The almost ubiquitous use of entertainment devices by commuters effectively attenuates these auditory cues in any case as has been tragically illustrated by pedestrians being killed because they stepped out in front of approaching vehicles whilst listening to music from their iPods. However, DSRC network technology could easily provide warning information to pedestrians if it is set up correctly and integrated with the mobile communication networks. Of course, there would need to be considerable human factors input so that any system is designed properly.
I suppose that all of these examples illustrate the importance of the latter aspect. It would have been great if the vehicle manufacturer described at the beginning of this post had taken the step of actually testing their idea from a human perspective prior to making such a retrograde decision. We now have vehicles which inherently create a similar problem to mobile phone use and texting problems that we are trying so hard to overcome – a safety time bomb in each of the vehicles produced by this company. Similar to faulty brakes or steering as it may have the same effect on road safety
One can only hope that the engineers, accountants and marketers who seem to rise to the top of these companies will realise the importance of fundamental human factors in their future products. Not just aspects such as usability testing, but the integral way that humans sense, perceive and process information. Perhaps we can then apply a safety systems approach to road use and reap the benefits of eliminating the contributors to potential incidents (such as poor vehicle controls) before they occur.
The integration of human sciences in product design represents one of the key challenges in this area. Outside of defence etc this still seems to be profoundly difficult for many/most organisations. (Of course there are exceptions Apple …) A few companies achieve it. I think a good analysis of the economics of good human centred design in product success is a missing part of the problem.