A little while back I bought a new Ford car – and decades of safety improvement since my first car was built (a 1963 Fiat 600) can be seen everywhere. Headlamp switches are no longer horizontal spears of hard plastic. There are air-bags, seat belts and head-restraints. There are flat-tyre warnings. Our cars are, physically, much safer than ever before.
But what about the psychological problems that drivers face… Have decades of ergonomic research made cars easier and safer to drive?
In many areas there has been good progress. Car designers have stopped putting headlamp ‘on/off’ switches next to identical windscreen-wiper switches. Many of the controls have moved from the dashboard onto steering-column stalks. And, in the last decade or so, audio controls and cruise controls have migrated onto the steering wheel itself. Visual displays have become clearer and brighter. External mirrors are now fitted as standard, and they are no longer the size of a beer mat. There is much to praise.
And yet, as I gaze around the interior of my smart new car, not all the changes seem positive. The sheer quantity of electronic stuff that is fitted to modern cars has increased vastly. And this fly-by-wire technology all needs switches. And I don’t mean the ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches that our grandparents were happy with. We now demand… menus.
The technical problem faced by designers is to find places to put all these controls. And their solution is the same one that worked with indoor electrical equipment (until Alexa got involved) – miniaturisation and multi-function switches.
The psychological problem faced by drivers is finding all these miniature switches while driving a car. The climate control ‘suite’ in my new Ford, for example, comprises two multi-function knobs and nine tiny flush-fit buttons, each the size of a watch battery. This array of buttons is located at 40 degrees away from the driver’s forward line of vision and sometimes it is hidden by the gear lever. A much more sensible place for these controls would be higher up the dashboard, of course. But, no… this area is reserved for God Herself – the sprawling and complex Entertainment System.
What cannot be denied is that this array of bijoux buttons and dials does look sexy. And designers are right in thinking that the best way to sell a car today is to create an illusion that motorists are actually buying a space ship. But unlike most interstellar routes, the M25 is very crowded indeed… and we only have a crew of one. Trying to find and operate tiny buttons at night and navigate menus while driving on busy roads presents drivers with challenges that many of us – elderly, inexperienced, nervous, over-confident, just in love, just been dumped – will fail to meet. Anyway, back in my new Ford, I have finally located the tiny heater ‘on/off’ button, fiddled with it correctly and returned my gaze to the road. And this time I didn’t hit a pedestrian. Hoora!
But not so fast, Mister… The psychological challenge has not finished quite yet. An information panel now lights up to distract me with important news… Just in case I have forgotten that I am driving a space ship, it reports to me that the climate control status has just been altered. It will make similar pointless reports when I adjust the radio settings, the other ventilation controls and – of course – when I operate my smart phone…
I can pair my phone with the entertainment system, and thereby talk hands-free, create text messages and probably update my Facebook page too. But wait; there’s more! If I have an accident that causes the air-bags to deploy, my paired phone will automatically summon the emergency services. Well, fancy. Even Captain Kirk couldn’t talk Starfleet Command into giving him that optional extra.
But I hear what you’re thinking… Valid as all this moaning about driver-overload might be, is it not yesterday’s debate? This is star date 2021. Won’t driverless cars soon solve all our psychological problems at a stroke?
In theory and in science-fiction, the answer to this question is yes – just as it seemed certain, in the 1970s, that humans would soon voyage to Mars and establish a colony. But in the real world, I can’t see driverless cars replacing my Ford any time soon. The reasons why this is true are many and varied – and vast cost is only the simplest.
So with due respect to Elon Musk and other billionaire visionaries who desperately want Martian colonies and driverless cars to happen within their lifetimes, I think we are stuck with human drivers for many decades to come. These humans have psychological limitations that mean they can only cope with a few things at once. And worse, these humans get bored, fiddling with the novelty controls when they should be looking at the road.
There are a number of stop-gap solutions to the problems of driver ergonomics in the pipe-line… Some car manufacturers have been trying to develop ‘mind-sense’ technologies that will, for example, read our brain activity through headbands and annoy us when we start day-dreaming or looking away from the road. But again, the practical technologies for delivering mind-reading devices are in their infancy. How many drivers would be willing to wear a brain activity-detecting headband – unless compelled to do so under the terms of their parole? It’s hard enough to get people to wear face masks.
And notwithstanding the fact that headbands would be uncomfortable and look ridiculous, we like to day-dream in our cars. We like to take in the beautiful scenery, the car crashes and members of the same/opposite sex as we drive along the roads. Who wants a technological device that routinely punishes drivers with a vibrating steering-wheel because it has detected ‘sexual thoughts incompatible with road safety’?
So, here I am in a ditch. It’s Christmas day tomorrow and I’ve had a couple of drinks. But no need to worry – my paired phone has just called the police. I will state in court that I was distracted by the ridiculous location of the demister switch, a sudden ‘change of status’ notification, and the Highways Agency’s endless information signs. But I am not hopeful… The integrated ‘mind-sense’ technology has already detected my change of mood and analysed my breath. The entertainment system is no longer playing Silent Night but Jailhouse Rock.
Perhaps, one day, driverless cars will populate the roads of Beijing, New York, Paris, New Delhi and Mexico City, providing the complete solution to motoring ergonomics. But until that centennially distant time we need cars that persons of great age, little experience and modest skill can all drive safely. Instead, we are deluding ourselves that we can drive an entertainment system on wheels. More gadgets, more switches and more information is not always better.
As Bill Clinton might have put it, ‘It’s the ergonomics, stupid.’