Fantasy turns into nightmare, the devil is in the detail

In the 80’s the American classic TV series Knight Rider fascinated the world with its KITT a Pontiac controlled by artificial intelligence of a computer. Many automotive fans wondered if they would ever get those gizmos featured in KITT for real. The modern day car has almost all the features (to some extend) minus the lethal fire power of KITT in the form of In Vehicle Infotainment system and other gadgets etc. We interact with these multimodal gadgets everyday while we are driving the car as Music, Video, car phone, GPS Navigation, Night vision, Proximity detector and others. These gadgets had been a boon in one context and curse in the other when they tend to overshoot the features which may distract the driver while driving. Distracted driving is one of the issues for drivers involving in crashes and this post is to analysis if the auto manufacturers ( including automotive accessories manufacturers) have nailed this issue or not. Although there are many vehicles which has done great innovations on its dashboard to minimise driver distraction, this post is too small to cover them all.

In 2008 there were a total of 34,017 fatal crashes in the USA involving 50,186 drivers killing 37,261 individuals. Distraction was reported for 11 percent (5,501) of the drivers involved in fatal crashes. The proportion of fatalities reportedly associated with driver distraction increased from 12 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008 (2009, Traffic safety facts, NHTSA).

Figure 2: Image source Traffic safety facts, NHTSA.

Although the main image (copyright belongs to Wallis Dress to kill Advt.) of this post exemplifies one of the causes for external distractions, this post will focus on internal distractions caused mainly by in vehicle infotainment system garnished in the vehicle dashboard.

Internal distraction is reserved for incidents in which the driver fails to recognize a situation requiring a response because his/her attention is directed to some event, object, person, or activity inside the vehicle. Relevant examples include tuning the radio, adjusting the heat/cooling system, engaging in a conversation with a passenger, using a cell phone, retrieving fallen objects, reading books/magazines/maps/invoices, etc. (NHTSA, 2009)

Designing a less distracting interface for Infotainment systems

In the past, research has proven that the combination of Visual and tactile interface is more effective on multiple tasks under high workload. It is also known that multi modal interface has provided advantages in reducing reaction times and improving performance (JL Burke, et all, 2006). The notable measurements of distractions are eyes off the road and hands off the steering. Eyes off the road are used to measure Visual distraction and hands off the steering are used to measure manual distractions (NHTSA, Driver Distraction program).
It may sound like Jim Morrison’s Roadhouse blues, but eyes on the road and hands on the steering is one of the creed of safe driving.

Operation of any task through any interface which requires the drivers to keep their eyes away from the road and their hand(s) off the steering wheels contributes negatively to their driving.

Eyes on the road and Hands on the steering

If the In Vehicle Infotainment systems require the drivers to perform more operations in the touch screen interface then it may demand more eye gaze from drivers off the road and also hand(s) off the steering.

The In vehicle infotainment system in most vehicles today uses Touch screen (some use haptic touch screen), tactile, Voice and Gesture based interface. A blend of these interface will be essential to balance their advantages over others disadvantages for example

Tactile interface gives the users the advantage of haptic perception which helps the user orientate with the location of the button so that they can reduce the number of times to gaze at the button to perform an operation.

On the other hand Touch screen interface gives the user the advantage to customise the visual appearance of the controls, but it would not help them to orientate with the location of the button in the dashboard.

If you think you can orientate the location of the buttons without haptic perception and eye gaze in a touch screen infotainment system, please give this test a try.

Imagine you are driving a car now and your current browser screen as your infotainment systems touch screen interface. You want to change the state of the infotainment screen display from the current to something else. To perform this operation you need to tap on a button, let’s say that button is the browser close button (top right corner ‘X’ button). Now don’t stare at the infotainment display (computer screen) keep your eyes on the road (metaphorically speaking) tap on the close button.

If you have succeeded its mostly because your fingers hit on the top right corner of the computer monitor and that haptic perception helped you realise that you have placed your fingers on the close button of the browser.

Will you be able to perform the same if the button is on some other location where you won’t get any haptic perception? Try this test after you resize your browser window.

The importance of tactile buttons cannot be ignored and haptic touch screen may not be the solution to replace tactile interface in this scenario, I will discuss about the haptic touch screen later in a separate post.

Figure 3: Steering wheel with controls and Head up Display

Some vehicle manufacturers take advantage of tactile feedback by placing them on the steering wheel (image on the left) to keep the hands on the steering while performing few essential tasks which the drivers may perform while driving.

To keep the eyes on the road, many car manufactures use Head up display (HUB) as in image here to show navigation signs and other essential warnings to minimise the eyes off the road situation. This link demonstrates the head up display of one car manufacturer.

Impact of light on driving activity, Come sun or come moon.

According to The Automobile Association Limited” blinding glare caused by a low sun, or by bright light reflecting off snow, puddles, the car in front, or even your own bonnet can be potentially lethal, particularly when driving at speed. Glare is frequently cited as the cause of road traffic accidents, but the right pair of sunglasses can prevent it… Polarised lenses are normally fixed tints, but their inherent properties can significantly help to reduce glare. Their effect can be very evident on wet roads.” (AA, 2010).

But there are few indications that Polarised sunglasses and LCD display won’t go together.

Using polarized lenses to view any type of LCD screen, such as the ones in the dashboard of some vehicles, could be problematic.

Apparently, when an LCD screen is viewed at a certain angle through polarized lenses the screens can become invisible. Predominantly that is the reason why polarised sunglasses are not advised for pilots since polarisation can reduce or eliminate the visibility of instruments that incorporate anti-glare filters (Sunglasses for pilots, FAA) So it’s either the institutions which develop the standards of the driving sunglasses or the display manufactures should take a call on this.

Night driving is often considered more hazardous, because the drivers are fighting against their system which wants to sleep and their reflex will be very low because of fatigue. The driver’s eye has to adjust to the glare from the lights of oncoming traffic. With passing years the car dashboard is garnished with more electronic gadgets then it was earlier.

Figure 2: Car driving in night

The light emitted from these electronic gadgets mounted on the dashboard, affects the time it takes to adjust the eyes for the driver to the sudden brightness of the lights of oncoming traffic.

In the 90’s SAAB came out with an innovative Black panel feature which would turn off all the illuminated controls in the dashboard; this would help the driver to focus more on the light outside the car then inside. The video below will illustrate the SAAB Black Panel (now it’s called Night Panel)

Are we heading the right way?

Right from the first radio which featured in the car in 1930’s, till the proposed 17 inch touch screen infotainment system from Tesla Model S (click here for video) had been debatable.

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. You can never change things by fighting the existing reality.” Buckminster Fuller

Maybe we should stop overloading the dashboard with gadgets and look in a different perspective for a solution, which would feed the info hungry drivers with very minimal distraction. In the near future augmented reality Head-Up Display (HUD) could be a silver bullet for driver distraction and many auto giants are into it.

When it comes to automobiles, if it is not safe, its aesthetics or its features is not worth a nickel.

References and acknowledgements

Figure 1 Courtesy Wallis dress to kill

Figure 2 Traffics safety facts, 2009, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Figure 3 Courtesy Siva Kumar

Figure 4 Courtesy SAAB United

Traffics safety facts, 2009, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Driver distraction program, 2010, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

AA, 2010, retrieved on 28 July, 2010, from

Sunglasses for Pilots, MEDICAL FACTS FOR PILOTS, Federal Aviation Administration, Publication AM-400-05/1

JL Bureke et all, 2006, Comparing the Effects of Visual-Auditory and Visual-Tactile Feedback on User Performance: A Meta-analysis

Post to…