Safety Designed In

By AutoObserver Staff March 8, 2011

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Don Norman is fascinated by the design of just about everything. He is the author or co-author of 18 books that discuss and critique designs and how they help people accomplish everyday tasks. Armed with electrical engineering degrees from MIT and University of Pennsylvania, he's one of the world's leading experts on user-centered design, and he's consulted with several companies to help them build and improve products that satisfy human and societal needs, both practical and emotional.

don norman.jpgOne of Norman’s (left) specialties is the design of automobiles and its evolution over the years. Though cars have introduced new technologically advanced safety and entertainment features, Norman points out those very features offer a more complex — and, at times, a more dangerous — driving experience.

To get a better understanding of how users interact with new car technology, CEO Jeremy Anwyl invited Norman to join him in the front seat of a typical modern automobile (in this case, a 2011 Ford Explorer) and to explain the benefits — and downfalls — of new technology.

In this excerpt, Norman describes the evolution and complexities of the modern automobile:

“Once upon a time, the car was for driving, and it was about the driver, and the driver had controls that were relevant to driving: How fast am I going? What's the tachometer read? What gear am I in? And you had to shift by yourself and you had to worry about braking and braking not too hard.

“Well, there have been a lot of improvements. It wasn't long ago when we killed 50,000 people a year in automobile accidents, and now it's down to roughly 40,000 — with more cars and more drivers on the road. So there have been improvements in safety.

Increased complexity
“The modern automobile has become so complex with so many features. Some are invisible. I think the stability control and anti-skid braking — and for that matter, automatic shift — are really good examples of things that are invisible.

“(With lane-departure warning systems), if I move out of my lane, the car vibrates or flashes a light. But if I want to change lanes, oops! How do I tell the car I really want to? Well, we use the turn signal. Once upon a time, the turn signal was used to tell other cars what you wanted to do. Now it's to tell your own car. Bizarre.

“The number of possibilities are overwhelming. If I back up, there's a video screen. Do I watch outside and back, or do I watch the video screen? Which is safer? We don’t know.

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Entertainment system on wheels
“But the other thing that's happened is we've gone away from the automobile for driving to, hey, it's entertainment, it's my living room. The sound systems in these cars are often better than are in your homes. Actually (on the steering wheel), the word Sony, I think, is more prominent than the word Ford. This is typical of the modern car. So this really is not about Ford. It's about the modern automobile. The fact that it's a Ford with Microsoft and Sony collaborating on the designs is interesting, but the problems people face are the same. It's just too many things going on.

“Remember a few years ago, BMW said, 'The dashboard is so complex, we're going to try to simplify it.' They developed the iDrive. Well, the concept was actually a really good one. It just didn't work well while you were driving at high speed, and it ended up confusing more than it helped. And to BMW's credit, they've done a lot of advances since then. Then all of the other manufacturers have copied and learned from that experience.

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Owner’s manual grows exponentially
“This particular car comes with this manual, which is the supplement on the entertainment system, I guess, and maybe the e-mail reading system and the media features and the cell-phone features and the voice-recognition features. And then it comes with this, which is the tire warranty — a tire warranty that is 63 pages long! And there’s a roadside assistance and warranty guide — a guide to the warranty — and a quick reference guide.

“And then we have the manual itself, which is 440 pages. So come on, this is too much. It's overwhelming. No one is going to read it all. In fact, no one will probably read the critical stuff. So we have to go back to making cars understandable.”

How driver behavior affects safety
“I think that the basic driving is really the same in all vehicles across the world. The only real difference is whether the steering wheel's on the left or on the right, as in, say, Japan or Hong Kong or the United Kingdom. What's different is all of the subsidiary instrumentation, and this can be just as dangerous, because if I'm trying to make it warmer or turn on the defroster and I can't do it or I have to spend time glancing down here or at my controls instead of driving, I could be dead.

“There was this wonderful set of studies that they did at Virginia Tech where they instrumented 100 cars with TV cameras so they could see what the people were seeing, and they had TV cameras looking at the drivers. And they did this for a whole year, and the people knew they were being filmed, and nonetheless, they would drop things on the floor and pick them up — they had a lot of accidents, and (the studies’) data showed if your eyes are off the road for more than 10 seconds, the chance of an accident went way up. Or sometimes (your eyes would) be off the road more than 10 seconds just changing the radio station. So this is where the dangers are.

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Trouble happens fast
“When trouble erupts, it happens often in a fraction of a second, unexpectedly, and it's really difficult to react. We all probably have had that experience. We're driving along comfortably, and suddenly, whoo! Where did that come from? And we hit the brakes and the steering wheel, and sometimes we survive and sometimes we crash. That's what's dangerous. I think cars would be safer if they were more dangerous because it would keep you focused.

“People are not very good at multi-tasking, and your ability diminishes as you get older. People think they're good. Teenagers think they're great at multi-tasking. They really aren't. If you study how well they're actually doing each of the separate tasks, it's not as good as they think it is. And when we're driving, we are multi-tasking. We're having a conversation. We are looking. We're listening to music. We're controlling the navigation system or the temperature system or the entertainment system. Our mind is off someplace else because staring at the road is boring.

“It's a complex problem. There's not going to be a single solution. One of my favorite quotes is by journalist H.L. Mencken. He said for every complex problem, there's a simple solution — and it's wrong.

Seeking the solution
“So will voice (commands) be the solution? No, but it's part of the solution. Head-up display is wonderful. With a head-up display, I'm looking ahead and I can see what speed I’m going and I can see the next navigation instruction, and that's very valuable. But let me point out with the heads-up display, my eye can be right on the person crossing the street, but if I’m reading the speed, I won't see the person. So it's not the solution, but it's a good step.

“Voice output? Very valuable in navigation. Voice input? Yes, it will be valuable in many situations. But none of these are the solution. I think one of the major things we have to do is minimize the activities the driver can do. We have to minimize the distractions on the driver and I think take away a lot of the entertainment controls. Now, that's going to be hard. If you're driving across the country by yourself, you need the entertainment. You need to be able to play different music.

“We have to minimize the distraction and the complexity, which means minimizing the number of features. People won't like that. People love to have the extra power, the extra flexibility.

“You know what I think the solution's going to be? It’s not something that most people will like — automatic cars. People say, "But I love driving. Don't take it away." Well, you know, people used to love horseback riding and we got rid of horses. And if you want to go horseback riding, hey, you can do it. You go to special places. So we'll go to special places where you can rent cars or have your own car, have a track.

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The Role of Engineers
“Most of the time driving is easy, but it’s deceptively easy. How many people do you know who are ill coordinated, who could barely walk down the hall? If you threw a ball at them, they couldn't catch it. Well, guess what? These people are also driving automobiles at very high speeds.

“We have to design cars for those people. One thing I like to tell people is half the people in this world are below average. That’s the definition of average. And yet we don't design that way. Engineers are all above average. They're highly educated, highly skilled, and they're the ones designing these things.

“The problem with engineers who designed these cars — and for a long time, it was engineers who decided everything about the design of a car — is that they are too logical. They were designing things not for the way people are, but for the way you'd prefer them to be.
“The engineers are absolutely essential and important in driving these things to make sure they're functional and work well, and do all that we care about, but we also need people with a psychology background.

“When the first computers were available for home use, they were unworkable, and it was the same problem. These were designed by engineers, by programmers, by computer scientists who didn't understand everyday people. So there was a whole field that evolved called human/computer interaction, which is a sub-branch of human factors.

“Well, today, these people are now working in human/automobile interaction, and they're very important. So the human-factors groups in all of the major automobile manufacturers — I visited the ones in Toyota, at BMW, at Ford and General Motors — are actually having more say and more control over the design of the stuff that the passengers and the drivers interact with, and that’s a really good thing.

“But it's a tricky job, and that's where we need a combination of people who understand people — the human-factors experts, the human/computer interaction experts, and the design community — to work with the engineers.

“I'm very reassured that the automobile industry has hired really good people. It used to be that the high-prestige job in the design side of automobiles was the exterior design, what it looked like. Today, that's been changing. So now it's equally prestigious to be part of the interior-design team. And that interior-design team includes people trained in interaction design.”

Don Norman's insights were collected as part of's efforts to explore automotive safety issues in connection with its May 2011 conference Truly Safe? Debunking Myths and Crafting Effective Policies for Car Safety.

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