Friday, 27 March 2009

Satnav stories

I'm back on my horseless carriage this week, with two more stories about driving ergonomics in the news.

The first broke on Wednesday, as Sky News reported on the "Driver led to 100ft cliff edge by sat nav". We see these stories from time to time - whether it's driving up a one way street, driving into a river, or in this case nearly off a cliff - people blindly following the instructions from their gadget. It's an issue of trust in technology, which is widely discussed in the ergonomics literature.

Raja Parasuraman, one of the foremost authors on the topic, talks about 'use, misuse, disuse, and abuse' with technology (specifically, automation). If it seems too smart, we become overreliant and misuse it; if it keeps going wrong, we lose trust and misuse it. The abuse comes from designers and manufacturers who use technology for the sake of it without considering the user.

Now, the satnav is not automation, but it adds a layer of technology that has many benefits and disadvantages. For some users - and this may just be a trait rather than reflecting anything about their intelligence - there is an implicit faith in the technology. "It comes from a satellite, so it must be right", that kind of thing. It's almost like we suspend judgement when following instructions - and it could equally happen if it were a co-driver giving us directions, depending on how much you trusted their judgement (which is exactly the same point). Obviously it's less likely to happen if you were reading a map yourself - you'd probably take in all the information around you to make your decision.

Naturally, the law doesn't allow for suspension of judgement when in charge of a car, and on this occasion the driver faces a court case for driving without due care and attention. He may look back and laugh one day, but it could've been a lot worse.

Just to briefly touch on the second related story as it's just arrived in my inbox - Philadelphia is on the verge of joining a long list of US cities that have banned mobile phone use when driving, as reported here. I already talked about this a couple of weeks ago (see this post), so I won't labour the point. But I was particularly reassured by indications that the message is getting through - and I quote the Police Commissioner, "There is no debate, cell phones and driving do not mix." Quite right, as the plethora of ergonomics studies shows. Unfortunately this particular bill only relates to hand-held phone use, whereas the literature clearly demonstrates that hands-free is just as bad. If only we could have a precedent for banning hands-free...

Friday, 20 March 2009


I was intrigued and amused this week to see a book review in The Independent newspaper for "Why We Make Mistakes" by Joseph Hallinan, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, no less. Sounds great, I thought, and right up my street - a book on human error aimed at the pop science market.

At first glance it seems to tick all the boxes, too - talking about lapses of memory, optical illusions, and even medical errors that were down to equipment design. All very relevant to ergonomics. But hold on - did that word actually appear anywhere in the book?

It certainly didn't appear in the review, and the more I read, the more it irked me. This really is a book about ergonomics, but there is no reference to the underlying scientific discipline anywhere. The book (or the review, at least) actually has it wrong in places too - referring to the phenomenon of 'change blindness' (not by name, of course) as an ophthalmological problem - but it's actually about information processing and expectations, nothing to do with our visual acuity. And there are even some areas where it's treading on thin ice - for instance, the author's own claim that it's a "field guide to human error" ... well, I'm afraid Sidney Dekker wrote the Field Guide to Human Error, and he's a proper ergonomist.

The icing on the cake was when I read the plans for the UK release (later this year) to be titled 'Errornomics' (cashing in on the success of 'Freakonomics'). But for a consonant or two, he so nearly stumbled across the right word!

I'll probably end up giving it a read when it comes out in the UK, though I'm quite prepared to get wound up reading it (not least for the fact it'll be a case of "why didn't I do that"). I'm all for bringing this subject into the public consciousness, but I'd rather the source material were acknowledged. Could've been a chance to make 'ergonomics' a household word - alas, I fear the chance has been missed.

Friday, 13 March 2009


I should start out by saying I never meant for this blog to become purely transport related (although that is my main research area); it just so happens that I've picked up on a bunch of driving stories in the media lately that have human-centred issues. Hence this being the third in a row of driving-related posts. I promise I'll get back to wider HCD issues soon!

Anyway, two items have been brought to my attention this week related to the Foot-LITE project that we're working on in the HCDI (which I've already discussed in this blog). One is on the T3 gadget website, looking at the interface in the new Honda Insight which displays how eco-friendly your driving is. In a nutshell, the display changes colour from blue to green as you get better, and it gives you 'leaves' as a reward for driving in a more environmentally friendly manner (not dissimilar to the Ford concept, which can be seen here).

The other one was on the Guardian blog just this week, reporting on an enhanced satnav system ('econav') that gives you extra information on your driving style, such as excessive accelerating or braking, and when to change gear.

Interestingly, these two systems represent different ends of what I'd call an intervention spectrum in terms of vehicle technology. As far as I can tell, the Honda system provides minimal instructional information to the driver about actually how to change their driving, instead using its own on-board systems to maximise economy - even to the point of 'smoothing out' the driver's acceleration. You just get to know how good or bad you're doing. Econav, on the other hand, does nag the driver (in the Guardian reporter's own words), suggesting optimal gear shifts, acceleration, and other factors (it looks like speeding is monitored, for instance). As a bolt-on, then, it can't intervene with your driving, so it gives you a ton of information instead.

I'm not going to go too far out on a limb (with or without green leaves) to say which is better - in fact I think there are pros and cons to each, concerning the level of information given to the driver (have a look at the displays and make your own mind up). What I will say, though, and echoing my previous post on the Foot-LITE project, is that this is definitely a boom area in driving - these two systems are just a sampler of many emerging on the market - and as such deserves more attention from ergonomists and human-centred designers. I can't say how much HCD work has gone behind the products we're already seeing, suffice to say it seems like a bit of a bandwagon and probably some have been rushed out more than others. But this is one thing we can't compromise on: what we're working so hard to get right in the Foot-LITE project is how to give the feedback to the driver in a way that encourages the desired behaviour but doesn't take their attention from the road to the point where it causes a distraction - the really human-centred eco-co-driver. Without giving too much away or being too judgemental on the sorts of devices we've seen so far, I still reckon there's a gap in the market here.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Driving ergonomics

Following on from my post about the Foot-LITE project last week, a number of driving-related stories have caught my eye in the media since. Each of these has an ergonomics spin related to my professional and personal interests.

The first is a report on the local BBC news about new developments in vehicle automation (featuring one of our colleagues on Foot-LITE, Eric Chan from Ricardo). What really amuses me about this piece is the barely-contained skepticism of the reporter, who clearly doesn't like the idea of the car doing half the task for him. Whilst I've always said I never want to come across as technophobic about such matters, the points he's making are valid ones. Issues of trust (in the automation), behaviour modification (note the junction which he takes much faster than he would've done normally) and allocation of function (what's left over for the driver to do and is this really a coherent task?) are all relevant ergonomics challenges. Where this particular system is going in the right direction, however, is in its efforts to provide support for higher-level aspects of driving - hazard detection and avoidance. My view is that we don't need to automate the low-level, vehicle control activities - because we're already quite good at this stuff. Where we need help is in the more complex, decision-making aspects of the task - where we're more susceptible to errors.

The problem of mobile (cell) phones and driving reared its head again in this report, based on a new study by David Strayer at the University of Utah. I'm not going to labour the point because it's been well made already, but what I will say is that this is one area of the science where it's as good as an open and shut case. As scientists, we never say we've absolutely proved any finding - we only tak in degrees of certainty. However, the evidence base for the detrimental effects of phoning and driving is so strong now, it's as close to certain as we're ever going to be. I'm not saying we should stop researching it, but all of the data so far say pretty much the same thing. I'd go so far as to say it's a fact - using your mobile when driving increases your accident risk. And that's whether it's hand-held or hands-free - the research says it's the same either way. So whilst we now have it enshrined in UK law for hand-held phones, we really ought to take more responsibility and ignore the phone completely when we're on the move.

Finally, the increasing popularity of hybrid and electric cars raised a potential ergonomics problem in my own mind recently as I was cycling around my local town. Waiting at a traffic light, I was confident that I had clear roads around me, but when I did my 'lifesaver' check over the shoulder before pulling away, a hybrid car in electric mode had silently crept up on me. Making me realise how much I used my ears when cycling, this experience set me thinking about the safety concerns for cyclists and pedestrians - especially partially sighted ones. Sure enough, ergonomists have picked up on the issue (see this report) and go so far as to suggest using fake noises in electric cars to get around the problem. Kind of a 21st-century equivalent of the man waving the red flag in front of the car.