Friday, 17 April 2009

Driving technology

Well, I had a break for Easter, but the tide of technology marches on. At the risk of seeming repetitive, I have another three-part list of interesting car technology stories that have made the news recently, which are relevant to our Foot-LITE project that I’ve blogged about here before.

First up is a trial on ‘black boxes’ for young drivers in Staffordshire that has been permanently adopted. The box tracks driving style through acceleration, braking and lateral forces, and records red, amber or green flags depending on how the car’s being driven. These are transmitted back to a website for parents to keep tabs on their offspring’s driving, as well as being displayed via LEDs to the driver in the car.

Next, Vauxhall’s new Insignia (the Vectra replacement) has some interesting looking technology (both literally and figuratively) in the form of front-facing cameras, which not only monitor for lane departures (the likes of which we’ve seen before), but can also recognise speed limit signs that are then shown on a ‘memory’ display on the dashboard.

Finally, the CBI is calling for ‘smart dashboards’ to show drivers instantaneous fuel use as well as giving instructions on when to change gear as an eco-driving intervention. And they want all new cars to have these installed by 2012.

What do I think of these? In reverse order, the CBI idea has good intentions but is a bit simplistic in its implementation. We know that gear change is just a part of eco-driving (with throttle use being more important), and our research on the Foot-LITE project suggests that a fuel use indicator might end up being more frustrating than helpful. What’s more, drivers may end up trying to rigidly follow the advice rather than driving sensibly to the conditions – thus compromising safety. In Foot-LITE we’re trying to achieve safe and eco-driving – what we call smart driving.

The black boxes seem to have gone down well with parents and teen drivers alike, but again the feedback given seems a bit basic – I see nothing on the news release about whether the system says what manoeuvres have triggered the flags. So both parents and drivers will have no idea about what aspects of driving style to change, and for those young drivers who genuinely have the right attitude and want to be safe but just haven’t developed the skills yet, the absence of detailed feedback will limit their learning.

The Vauxhall system has the most promise. I have reservations about the lane departure warnings on several levels – they are visual warnings at a time when you should be looking at the road, from the video demo on the website they don’t seem to distinguish right and left departures, and they also have a green ‘warning’ when you are correctly in your lane, which could get confusing. The speed limit memory is a different story, though. I’ve had conversations with driving standards professionals which have concluded a need for just such a device, on the basis that many speeding drivers aren’t doing so for poor attitude, but because they’ve either missed or can’t remember the last sign they passed (I confess that I failed my first advanced driving test for this very reason). More to the point, the rules on speed limit sign placement – especially in 30mph zones – seem almost designed to trip drivers up by restricting repeater signs. Why not put the speed limit on the back of speed cameras, for instance? They have a nice big yellow backboard almost designed for the task. The in-car reminder goes a step further, and in my humble opinion is a more acceptable solution than the heavy-handed intervention levels of intelligent speed adaptation.

With the exception of the speed limit memory, wrap all these technologies up in a box and you’re a good way towards the Foot-LITE system. However – and naturally I’m biased on this – I believe we’ve overcome those shortcomings I’ve outlined above. How? By the application of sound human-centred design principles, of course. And no, I’m not going to give you any more details than that until we’ve completed the project…


  1. The age of Driver an LGV in the Uk has been reduced from 21 to 18.

  2. implementing smart dashboards with new technology is a good idea, but we should make sure that this could going to be a cause for more distraction.