BMW research links design with ‘driver attachment’

Even in this highly charged era of climate change, the British love of four wheeled-vehicles endures.

Yet the link between design and our attachment to the experience of driving a car has been relatively unexplored until now – a gap that a new report published by BMW last week aims to fill.

The report, ‘The secret life of cars and what they reveal about us’, follows a three-month project carried out by Oxford-based Social Issues Research Centre, and is written by Dr Peter Marsh, author of Gestures and Tribes, and Dr Iain MacRury, head of social science at the University of East London.

BMW’s ’emotional design’ philosophy centres on the way a car looks and feels, and how this determines the way in which it is driven. It also builds on the extent of the driver’s attachment to their vehicle.

Cognitive scientist Don Norman says attractive objects are simply more effective because they make the user feel better – hence the runaway success of the iPod compared to ordinary MP3 players.

The report argues for ‘a paradigm shift’ in the way we see design and understand ‘how beauty, form, function, pleasure and effectiveness can come together’.

Many respondents refer to their cars as extensions of their home. ‘My car is most like my bedroom – I feel comfortable and at ease in it,’ says one. Almost all interviewees spoke fondly of eating in the car.

Hence the importance of ‘the cupholder principle’ – the cupholder being the detail that represents wider positive or negative aspects of a car.

More than half of the interviewees valued the car’s capacity to provide a refuge and its ability to provide coveted ‘me-time’ as key in helping them enjoy their commute to work.

As well as highlighting the importance of sound – notably engine and indicator noise – the report touches on the role of communication between human and machine, arguing that the issue will be seminal to future car design.

Referring to voice control, Dr Frank Altholf – from BMW’s driver interface management department – says, ‘We can analyse pitch of voice, volume and intonation, to build a picture of driver emotion. Is it positive or negative? The car will know and respond accordingly.’

This also translates to the fast-developing area of gesture – in the future, the report says, a telephone call will be accepted or declined with a nod or shake of the head.

The more distant future could even see cars manage drivers’ moods. BMW is investigating circulating salted air through air-conditioning systems to help ease breathing.

Finally – and perhaps inevitably – the report touches on the emergence of a ‘user-generated’ car, which, in the manner of websites such as MySpace, allows users to determine their own experience.

Chris Bangle, group design director of BMW, is charged with redesigning the company’s range for this century.

He says, ‘Already we have a situation where the seat changes, the radio changes, all to your preference when you put your key in the door. Can you imagine tomorrow, when the form of the interior will change, the colours, the smell?’

It’s a Brave New World that BMW argues could be just around the corner.

Emotional design – an attractive car means a more engaged driver
The ‘cupholder’ principle – how much affection we feel for our cars resides in this type of detail
The commute – the best part of the day for many drivers, linked to the car representing a place of refuge, providing ‘me-time’
The future – we will see more responsive cars, keyed into the driver’s gestures and responses
User-generated – bespoke car design will become a reality

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