Taking the wheel automatically

How long will it be before it’s no longer necessary for a vehicle to have a driver? Michael Evamy explores the possibilities of the car controlling the driving

SBHD: How long will it be before it’s no longer necessary for a vehicle to have a driver? Michael Evamy explores the possibilities of the car controlling the driving

The last car I drove for any length of time was a Triumph Herald. It – sorry, he – was called Gerald. Driving him, it was easy to see how people came to love their cars: he had a steering wheel, three pedals, a gear stick, an indicator stalk, a choke, headlight knobs, a lighter and an ashtray. That, I think, was it, as far as in-car controls went.

Cars were once designed along the lines that driving should be a partnership between human and machine. The driver received feedback about the car’s performance, driving conditions and other traffic from sources all around, through their eyes, ears, nose, feet and hands. Wind and engine noise were useful gauges of speed, for example. In modern cars, drivers are hermetically sealed inside sound-proofed shells shot through with electronic controls. The partnership idea has gone, the car does everything. Microchips have taken over from our senses.

To people who hate driving, it is wonderful news. To a number of ergonomists, it could be a matter of life or death. The process of improving safety by taking away the chance of human error and putting electronics in control has gone too far. As drivers are removed further from the driving experience the roads may have become more dangerous.

The proliferation of driving management systems and electronic gadgetry has had two major effects on drivers. One is to make them lazier. Cars are becoming comfortable to the point where motorists are falling asleep at the wheel because they are so unoccupied. Professor Jim Horne at Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Laboratory recently investigated the incidence of sleep-related accidents. He found that young drivers are more likely to drop off at night and in the early morning, and older motorists in the afternoon: but he added, in New Scientist, the design of vehicles that put controls at the driver’s fingertips was turning cars into “beds on wheels”.

Manufacturers have centred car development on making vehicles more comfortable, but they are aware of the potential dangers. Some have tried to invent devices to alert the driver when he or she is falling asleep. Nissan, for example, aimed to monitor the use of the steering wheel: even cruising at a constant speed on the motorway, we fiddle with the wheel, and when we nod off we stop making these small adjustments.

Nissan’s device could detect this change in behaviour and sound an alarm, but customers found the suggestion that they could doze off at the wheel insulting, and Nissan quickly withdrew the feature.

The second danger presented by the proliferation of in-car displays and controls is that motorists spend more time studying them than they do the road. It takes time to learn where even standard controls are in a new car. Who hasn’t taken their eyes off the road to tune the radio and looked up to slam on the brakes and find themselves eyeball-to-eyeball with a dog in someone else’s back seat?

Head-up displays (huds) have been the subject of considerable industry research, but there is hesitation over transferring this avionics technology to cars. Jaguar, in particular, is interested, but admits that it has not carried out any user tests. For displaying route navigation information and improved images of the road ahead when visibility is poor, huds seem a great idea.

However, new research by Nicholas Ward and Andrew Parkes of Loughborough University’s Human Sciences Advanced Technology Research Institute indicates that the devices could simply be another distraction. Huds were originally developed to be viewed against sky, in jets, not against a background of bonnet and road. They should not be seen as simply another gimmick, say the researchers.

In 1994 ICE Ergonomics drew up a code of practice on driver information systems, which incorporated design guidelines, for the Department of Transport. Dean Southall, manager of the transport unit at the company, was at the centre of the drafting process. “There is a lot of new technology on the horizon – navigation systems, carphones, head-up displays – and our concern was the safety implications of it all.”

The code gives recommendations on the location and design of displays, and the design of controls. For instance, the turning knob is recommended for many reasons – tactile feedback, quick and precise adjustment – while the toggle switch and thumb wheel score less well. None of the code is binding: it is simply advice for designers. “Ideally, there will be standards,” says Southall. “But it is no easy task to define standards. For example, we examined the maximum acceptable period that drivers could look away from the road for, in a single glance, and came up with two seconds. But it is very contentious: half the experts say that is too long, half say it is acceptable. So it could take years, and would have to be agreed across Europe.”

There is even the possibility of standardised control layouts. “There has to be motivation for that sort of major change,” says Southall, “but motivation only comes through death and injury, and there isn’t enough data to show that people have died because, for example, their hazard warning light was in the wrong place.”

Ken Greenley, professor of vehicle design at the Royal College of Art, admits to difficulty in training young (exclusively male) minds to consider the needs of drivers outside their own peer group. “Twenty-five-year-old designers design for themselves. The biggest problem for a young designer is trying to work out the needs of, say, a 35-year-old single mother living in Warsaw,” he says.

However, Greenley rails against any strait-jacketing of designers. “Different layouts in cars is only an issue for car journalists, who get out of an Audi and climb into a Ford and complain that the stalk is on the wrong side. The problem with standardisation is that it stops innovation. If there had been a standard drawn up in the 1920s we’d be driving cars with the wiper controls at the top of the windshield.”

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