The interface design of automobiles hasn't changed much over the decades. And when auto designers or engineers start mucking around with established conventions, care must be taken; in several cases, people have been killed by unconventionally-designed shifters*, for instance. But now new technology is prompting a new design problem, which is how an autonomous car can communicate the "hand-off" between human and machine.
Automotive safety technology company Autoliv proposes that the design of the steering wheel itself ought signal this, er, peaceful transition of power. But I am not at all sure I agree with their execution. Have a look at their Z Force Drive steering wheel:
Let's tackle these features in the order they were presented. First off, I think the "feature" whereby the LEDs "chase" the driver's hands around the wheel isn't just silly—it's distracting, completely unnecessary and provides no functional value.
That the steering wheel knows when the driver's hands are and aren't on the wheel is certainly an intelligent feature, and one that ought be standard kit.
As for the bit about the different colors: Autoliv is proposing blue for when the driver is controlling the car, green for when the car is driving itself, and red for when the car wants you to grab the wheel. I would argue that there's no need for the blue; you already know when your own hands are on the wheel.
Also, during the act of driving, it seems common sense that you want as few distractions as possible for the driver, whose eyes ought be on the road. When I'm driving—particularly at night—I don't want a circular row of blue lights within my line of sight, and in a closer plane of focus than the dashboard.
The part about answering the phone seems particularly crazy to me--but admittedly, I hold the unpopular view that people oughn't speak on the phone at all, whether by speaker or not, while manually driving; I see too many motorists in Manhattan who are yapping away and allowing their driving to suffer as a result. So I think having the green and red lights on the steering wheel, and having to look down and tap them to engage or disengage a call, would be too distracting. I also think we've got a cognitive dissonance issue here, as green and red are already used to indicate other modes of operation.
There are a couple of additional features not seen in the video above. In the video below, we've cued it up to show you this bit after the phone call part:
As a driver, I don't want to be able to press on the steering wheel to increase or decrease speed; I don't need a second means of acceleration/deceleration beyond the pedals, and I'd worry about accidentally activating these features via the steering wheel. The potential for unwanted results seems too great here.
Here's another segment we've cued up. As a positive, Autoliv has thought out what the car should do if it asks the driver to take control and the driver refuses:
Pulling off the road seems a good solution—where possible. Something I've wondered about is what will happen when someone has fallen asleep during autonomous driving and is then suddenly asked to retake control of the car.
It's probably not fair to criticize Autoliv for the features I don't like, as the Z Force Drive is just a concept. Also, the company has been around for sixty years and thus, when it comes down to execution, presumably gets things right more than they get them wrong. Additionally, they helped pioneer a number of automotive safety features.
The design of the Z Force Drive does not appeal to me, but the company is at least trying to tackle a problem that all autonomous cars will have to confront. What remains to be seen is whether their concept will be embraced by manufacturers, or is just an experimental and evolutionary step towards the solution.
* When Bad UI Design Kills: Is Poor Shift Lever Design to Blame for Death of Star Trek Actor?
* Gearshift Lever's Design May have Caused Woman to Drive Onto Train Tracks
- Turning a Steering Wheel into a Feeling Wheel
- Auto Design Fail: Ford's Experimental "Wrist-Twist" Steering Wheel(s) from 1965