Driver Experience Design

Equally important to what we drive is how we drive.

MINI Crossover Concept / Courtesy of BMW Group PressClub

Profound change has come to the auto industry. Car makers have been hit hard by a perfect storm of high gas prices, economic recession, heightened concern for the environment, and anemic innovation (at least in the US). Buyers want something new, and auto manufacturers are trying to meet their demands, amounting to an enormous challenge for car designers.

So far, most innovations have come under the hood. Hybrid-electric and all-electric engines are popping up in all the big global players’ showrooms, and looming fuel-efficiency-standard increases are shrinking car size as a whole. But changes in efficiency aren’t enough. Higher safety standards are in demand, as are methods of integrating the growing digital landscape into the driving experience. In fact, the two might not be mutually exclusive. According to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, people are four times as likely to get into a wreck because of driving while talking or texting.

To address personal safety and technology, designers are going to have to innovate the cockpit rather than the drive train, and that means there has to be a change in driving habits — a daunting task, given how entrenched the rules of the road have become over the past 100 years.

“Driving is a very rote, motor-centric activity that’s based on physical memory,” says Eric Bailey, principal designer at frog design. “People have learned that if you do certain things — or don’t do certain things — there can be fatal consequences.”

A big reason why basic interior auto design has stayed largely unchanged is because auto manufacturers haven’t wanted to disrupt that memory and the behavior that comes along with it. And yet the driving experience is as complicated as ever — in spite of steering-wheel volume controls, Bluetooth techno-logy, and automatic curtain airbags. There’s no question the business of auto making has been upended, a fact that’s altering the concept of what we drive. Many in the industry have also decided it’s time to innovate how we drive.

Automatic Autos

As if all the moving objects outside the car aren’t enough to pay attention to, drivers now have to contend with any number of warning lights, backing-up beeps, incoming phone calls, and navigation instructions. Driving presents an onslaught of information to the driver. Because of this, designers have started supplementing some of the driving tasks by creating smarter cars that can detect and react to outside dangers. Instead of relying solely on the driver to make the right decision, automakers are beginning to put more of the onus on the car.

For example, Nissan is developing a system that uses 24-gigahertz radar sensors on the sides of the rear bumper to help the driver detect vehicles in the car’s blind spot.

This sounds like one of those ideas that should have been applied long ago — radar is a simple technology that’s been around for decades — but, again, the design challenge quickly refocuses on what happens inside the car. How do you alert the driver to exterior dangers while being sensitive to existing driving habits and also to the fact that drivers are close to sensory overload as it is?

“When you’re driving, you rely on sight so much to understand the road that it might be a problem to add another competing light on the dash,” says Bailey. “Adding audible or even physical cues might be a better solution.”

And indeed, Nissan’s radar solution does just that. If the driver tries to change lanes with someone in his or her blind spot, an audible alarm goes off and an electronic stability control uses the brakes to create a slight yaw in the car. There’s also a subtle tug on the steering wheel. Drivers may not be used to a steering wheel having a mind of its own (the tug can easily be overcome while driving), but it is a practical solution. Or as Bailey says, “They might not see the danger, but the tactile response from the car helps drivers understand that there might be a problem.”

In addition to its steering wheel solution, Nissan is also working on a design called “Eco-Pedal” that uses chip sensors to determine when excessive throttle is causing poor fuel mileage, triggering a push-back mechanism on the driver’s foot. Volvo’s “City Safety” system uses radar technology to sense imminent collisions at speeds between nine and 18 mph, and it automatically applies the brakes when closing speeds are too high.