Category Archives: automobiles

Learning to use a steering wheel with no vision or feedback

Here is a link to an enjoyable radioshow called “99% invisible,” about the “design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.”*

99% Invisible-37- The Steering Wheel

This episode covers the difficulty people have in correctly miming use of a steering wheel (spoiler: they can’t!) and how they can learn to do so correctly with no visual feedback. The researcher interviewed was Steven Cloete, whose website can be found here with more information about research specifics.

99% invisible was recently featured on Radiolab, one of my favorite science podcasts.

*no relation to the 99%.


Image credit ryanready at Flickr

Speedometer Design

This page contains an interesting inventory of past speedometer designs from Chevrolet.  Quite a variety!  Is usability getting better or worse?

I like it when the design works such that the prevailing speed limit (e.g., 60 MPH) lets the needle be oriented in a cardinal direction (pointed up or left) like the one below:

(via Kottke)

Update on the BMW iDrive

Nice writeup by BimmerFile on the iDrive, a single-button input device for the non-driving functions of the BMW. I’ve excerpted my favorite portions below — specifically their connection of iDrive design to the proximity-compatibility principle and the principles of importance and frequency of use.

 BimmerFile was recently invited to Munich and into the very secret BMW labs that birthed the original HMI interface known as iDrive. There we sat down with Dr. Bernarhd Neidermaier, Head of Human Interface at BMW to talk about iDrive, the concept, and testing behind the ideas we see in modern BMWs.

As Dr. Neidermaier explained, it all starts with the study of driver distraction. In fact, it’s an idea that BMW has been studying closely since the mid 1990′s. In recent year,s BMW has moved to using eye tracking technology to better quantify what it really means to take your eyes off the road in order to interact with technology. With a special rig that consists of tiny camera attached to glasses (focusing on the eye) and another focusing on what the driver looks at, the eye-tracking process allows BMW to calculate the exact time it takes to perform any function within the car.

Finally BMW has found that controls should be located downwards (towards the center console) so the driver can operate them without having to lift their shoulder from the seat. According to BMW engineers, if your shoulder lifts and you have your seat properly adjusted the HMI design isn’t optimal. As you can see in the photo below all modern BMW’s (in this case an F10 5 Series) have been following both of these philosophies that were initially established with the E65 7 Series in 2001.

Furthermore, those functions that are needed for driving must be situated directly in front of the driver. It sounds obvious but there have been many examples over the years of driving related displays pushed towards the center. In the case of the MINI, the center speedometer. Although BMW made sure to give the driver a digital speed read-out in the tachometer directly in front of them. Without it, BMW’s smallest car would fail their own usability testing.

Based on the research a driver’s information goes from center to the sides in order of importance. That means the tertiary stuff like oil temp etc. should be well out of the way of the speed and engine RPMs.

Click here to read the entire article.

There is also a publication of this process available through the ACM Library.

Niedermaier, B., Durach, S., Eckstein, L., & Keinath, A.(2009). The new BMW iDrive – Applied processes and methods to assure high usability. ICDHM ’09 Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Digital Human Modeling: Held as Part of HCI International 2009.

Photo credit _benj_ at Flickr (I could not find any creative commons pictures of the 2011 iDrive, so this is older. Pictures are available in the linked article, however.)

Also, check out the DESIGNING*for humans blog section on Control & Display Design.

Driven to Distraction

This editorial from MSN Autos nicely summarizes a topic we’ve covered many times:  in-car technology interfering with driving.  The central problem appears to be that in-car interfaces are designed in isolation–devoid of the context in which they will actually be used (while driving).  So the designs demand a high amount of attention and concentration.

Expert on human-automation interaction Dr. John D. Lee is quoted in the article.

But most automotive experts agree that screen and voice-control systems are here to stay. There are guidelines for good interactive system design; the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers published a 90-page document outlining the best practices for the industry in 2006. It’s long-winded and a bit dated, but Lee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison summarizes the basic wisdom of the document in a few points:

  • Complex displays that require the driver to search for information using glances longer than two seconds should be avoided.
  • The interaction should not “time out” or force the driver to attend continually to the task. The driver should be able to interrupt the task easily and return attention to the road.
  • Visual information should be placed near the driver’s line of sight.
  • The display should be easily readable with text and icons that can be seen at a glance.

[MSN Autos; thanks Jeremy!]

Automakers: Don’t skimp on the interface!

A very angry but insightful comment about the vehicle electronic interface of the 2011 Buick Regal from an automotive journalist:

Non touchscreen touchscreen: The GM navigation system and the graphics for it are designed with a touchscreen in mind — when entering in a destination, there is a recreation of a keyboard that allows you to punch in your letters and numbers. But, you can’t do that in the Regal.

So, Option 1: Use the clickable iDrive knob that falls more readily at hand. You can click the individual letter icons, but going through them takes FOREVER because you’re scanning one letter at a time across a keyboard icon. Audi and BMW both display the alphabet around a circle, which makes it quicker to program and easier to decipher.

Or, Option 2: Use the dash knob: This allows you to either rotate through the keyboard or move around it up, down and laterally using the multi-directional pad. Better than option 1, but the knob’s placement is less convenient.

Or, Option 3: Forget the knobs altogether and use the voice controls. This works, though it takes a very long time (the playback prompts don’t help) and for some reason, when I tried to use them, it didn’t ask me for an address number. Instead, I only had the option of going to some indiscriminate point on Flamingo Road.

He ends with this scathing comment:

Compared to our Acura TSX Wagon or departed Cadillac CTS, the Regal’s electronics interface seems like someone just didn’t try. When a brand is trying to convince people it deserves to be considered amongst luxury brands, it’s details like these that make a car stand above. The Genesis and Equus seem like (and are) luxury cars because Hyundai went all in.

Unintended Consequences of Design: Keyless Ignition Revisited

Peter Hancock, writing in the January issue of The Ergonomist, writes about the hidden dangers imposed by rapidly advancing automotive technology (noise, vibration suppression, keyless ignition).  Noise, vibration, sound, and the mechanical key provides useful information that the car is still on.  Removing these cues could result in mode errors:

In previous generations of vehicles, leaving the car ‘on’ as you exit tends also to provide a series of visual, auditory and even tactile kinesthetic cues as to its status. Old-time vehicles tended to make a considerable noise, their exhaust was often visible and the whole vehicle tended to vibrate noticeably while the engine was on. Over the immediate past decades, designers and engineers have sought ways to reduce these sources of disturbance since they were perceived as being perhaps unpleasant.
However, these nominally adverse effects contained problematic yet important informational content. Modern vehicles now rarely belch smoke from the exhaust. Efforts have also been very successful at reducing both noise and vibration such that modern vehicles have now indeed become whisper quiet.
It might, initially seem that leaving your engine running is more of an inconvenience than a significant threat. This is simply incorrect. The cases in the United States which have so far accrued from this form of design-induced error have been fatal.
A vehicle ‘running’ in an enclosed space with direct access for the exhaust to the airflow into your house is indeed a deadly trap. Sadly, a number of individuals now appear to have fallen into that trap.  This example may be one of these adverse but unintentional design outcomes.
There does not appear to be an online copy so I’m attaching the PDF here (thanks Rick!)
(post image from flickr user IceNineJon)

Blogging APA Division 21: “One Thing at a Time” (but over a really long time)

I held off for a while writing this post because I wanted to make sure I could include media Dr. John Senders included in his talk. I think you’ll agree it was worth the wait!

At the 2010 APA convention, John W. Senders, Ph.D. presented “One Thing at a Time: From Eye Fixations (1951), to Sampling (1954), to Information Theory (1955), to Workload (1959), to Queuing Theory (1964), to Attentional Demand (1966), Followed by a Lapse of 40 Years.” Video of the talk will eventually be posted on the Division 21 website.

Dr. Senders mentioned an eye tracking experiment from the 1950s, before any “eye trackers” existed. The method was to film the eyes of pilots as they scanned each instrument in a cockpit according to instruction. The position of the pilots eyes were coded in the close-up video. For example, a pilot might be told to “look at the altimeter,” and then the exact position of the pilot’s eyes was coded as “looking at altimeter.” Then, when the pilots were using their instruments naturally, a video of this use could be coded by eye position to know exactly when and where they were looking at any moment.

In another ingenious methodological development, Senders created a vision sampling device. The video below illustrates how it worked – a mechanical visor rose and fell in front of the driver’s eyes.

Dr. Senders came up with this idea of sampling while driving through a heavy rainstorm at different speeds, while the speed of the windshield wipers stayed the same. The visor in the video does the same — the rate of viewing can be controlled and the attentional demands of the driving task measured.

For more information, see the CogWorks website.

I’ve already covered these techniques in my classes as they are great demonstrations of creativity in research methods. If one has a well defined purpose and goal, a tool can often be created from surprising materials. Another example I often cite is the actual picture of Thorndike’s puzzle box — a splintered and rickety contraption that bears little resemblance to the finely drawn illustrations in intro psychology textbooks.

The Ultimate Driving Simulator

Lexus has posted a video of their ‘Most Advanced Driving Simulator In The World.’ There is a bit of “commercial” in it, but also a good bit of human factors.

Here is the link.

There is also a video on virtual crash tests, although I’m more interested in how the humans react to the crash rather than the materials in the car.

HF Potpourri

The Zero-Fatality Car

I ran across this fascinating article from ComputerWorld on Volvo’s goal of creating a zero fatality car by 2020.

As I read it, a number of human factors issues jumped out at me, but the focus is almost entirely on engineering issues. This does not mean Volvo will ignore the human factor. After all, I’ve previously posted on their well-done instrument panels. However, it would be fun to read about how they are including human reactions, expectations, and limitations in this work.

The focus on engineering solutions is typical in discussions of safety. Yes, it’s preferable to design out the hazard if you can, but the article even points out that “Another challenge is that wireless signals can be unreliable in moving vehicles” and “Of course, a looming challenge for cars that rely on computers for their safety is that computers are not 100% reliable,” which they would address by “warn(ing) the driver if it’s not working properly.” Sounds like some research on trusting automation might be helpful!

My favorite quote was “No amount of vehicle-to-vehicle communication will help when drivers make monumental mistakes, such as driving into a tree.” Since people do not often choose to drive into trees I think it would be useful to understand why they might make such a “monumental” mistake. Perhaps swerving to avoid a child in the road? Would the system disallow such a swerve to keep the driver safe, keeping the car on the original path?

We, the drivers, will still have to interact with our zero-fatality car to keep fatalities at zero and I hope we will be heavily included in this work beyond our heights, weights, and how much impact it takes to fracture our skulls.

Photo credit sidkid under a creative commons license.