Driver experience – the perfect partnership between man and machine

There’s a big difference between science fiction and fantasy, and most of us would place KITT – the advanced animatronic car in Knight Rider – firmly in the realm of wish-fulfilment fantasy

It just goes to show how even the most outlandish ideas can become reality. Modern automobiles might not have developed self-awareness yet but, like David Hasselhoff’s ride, they are fast developing powerful intelligence that can get their drivers out of all sorts of trouble.

As with KITT, today’s cars are studded with sensors and include an AI “brain” which can understand the environment around them. But the rapid progress of in-car technology threatens to outstrip our ability to process the new range of information and stimuli that these functionalities bring.

The big challenge for the automobile industry is therefore one of driver experience (DX): how they can improve human-car interaction to ensure that technology improves rather than hinders safety and the driver experience.

Putting cars in context

Cameras, sensors and even lidar in modern vehicles provide a wealth of real-time data about driving conditions and vehicle performance. Most importantly, they can combine this information to provide an intelligent interpretation of the car’s ‘context’: in other words, whether the vehicle and the driver are performing as well as they should.

Modern mapping technology is crucial to this task, collecting information from vehicle sensors and correlating it with a virtual representation of the real world – for example, through understanding the intentions of other vehicles or pedestrians, or knowing what local traffic rules apply. Digital maps also enable cars to “see” far into the distance and around corners or other obstructions, and to identify other perils such as black ice or red lights before they come into view.

Intelligent cars are like having a constant co-driver; one that not only keeps it eyes on the road, but also on the occupants of the vehicle – for example, by checking that the driver is paying attention and all passengers are wearing seatbelts. These capabilities are collectively known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), and can provide amazingly detailed information, instructions, warnings, and even interventions to stop you ploughing into the car in front.

The DX challenge

But this cornucopia of driver aids, entertainment, safety and information systems creates its own set of challenges. While all these functionalities bring tremendous benefits individually, it’s increasingly difficult for manufacturers to fit them together into a unified DX.

One obvious example is giving priority to safety-critical systems, such as enabling the forward collision avoidance system to interrupt your in-car navigation assistant.

Car manufacturers must also need to think about when and how different kinds of information are communicated to the driver. Whether it’s through audio, visual or haptic feedback, we must consider balancing the potential distraction to the driver with the seriousness and immediacy of the message.

But it’s also relevant to know when to inform; the context of a vehicle changes constantly as it is in motion. This is where we need to think back to KITT and imagine the car itself as a co-pilot that’s aware of environmental factors such as environmental conditions both within and without the vehicle. A clever car should be aware of a range of factors such as speed, driving conditions, dangers, and potential distractions such as incoming messages.

Obviously, this represents a new challenge for the industry, and there’s little in the way of conventions or standardisation. Nevertheless, it’s a challenge that we need to overcome if we’re to ensure that all these gizmos add to the driving experience and to safety on the road.

The DX challenge is one that we’ve been grappling with for a while now, and we’ve made some important progress on how best to convey different kinds of information to the driver. For example, TomTom has been working with several automotive partners on our EU Horizon 2020 projects such as ADAS&ME and VI-DAS.

These tests have reinforced the importance of context. Sensory stimuli can have wildly different effects depending on whether the vehicle is crawling through traffic or racing down the outside lane in driving rain. Sometimes it will only take subtle variations in the way that information is conveyed to minimise distraction; other situations may require a more dramatic response, immediately switching off all systems to ensure that the driver is aware of impending danger.

It will take work from across the industry before we arrive at a standard solution for DX, but at least we know that our destination is far from fantasy. We’re tantalisingly close to a world where cars and their drivers operate in full harmony and compliment each other’s unique abilities – just like KITT and the Hoff.

About the Author

Paul Schouten is Automotive UX Designer at TomTom. In our 30 years of disruptive mapmaking, our relentless innovation in location technologies has always revolved around driving progress. Together, we are creating a safer, cleaner, congestion-free world. Our maps for automated and autonomous driving, navigation software and real-time traffic and travel information provide a better way forward.

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