Friday, 29 May 2009

A safer way: road safety consultation

I've been meaning to mention this in my blog for a while, but other newsworthy things have been happening to report on. Anyway, the UK's Department for Transport currently has open a consultation on road safety strategy to take us beyond 2010, when the current strategy expires.

I've been feeding in comments via a couple of avenues, which I don't need to go into too much detail about here, but on the whole I'm actually rather reassured by what I've seen. The main win, in my eyes, is the key acknowledgement of the 'systems' approach in road safety - that is, viewing the road, the vehicle, and the driver as an interactive system, where you can't just treat any one element in isolation. Indeed, this is reflective of a general move towards such thinking in road safety at the European level.

Of course, systems thinking has been an underpinning tenet of ergonomics for some 60 years now (as I found out last week), and whilst I'm not sure we can claim the credit for influencing these high-level policy-makers, it's good to see the principles being taken on board. Happy coincidence or otherwise, personally I don't care where it came from, the good news is that we're all starting to think on the same wavelength.

There are also some positive noises regarding the role of technology in road (vehicle) safety - in terms of primary safety, crash avoidance systems, where they're calling for an evidence-based approach to implementation. The gloss is taken off a little as they seem to slightly overlook the ergonomics issues; the evidence they're seeking is more in terms of technical reliability. So there is room for more critical response to the consultation, after all.

If you have a vested interest in road safety I would encourage a review of the consultation document, and if you feel so inclined to respond then there's nothing stopping you. My views are just my views, and I wouldn't presume to try and sway your opinion, but to my mind it just needs a bit more of a human-centred approach.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Ergonomics Society Annual Lecture

On Tuesday evening this week I had the pleasure of attending the Ergonomics Society Annual Lecture, given by Professor Rob Stammers of the University of Leicester, on 'Kenneth Craik: a progenitor for ergonomics'. It was at the Royal Society of Arts, just off the Strand in London - a prestigious venue with very nice hospitality beforehand!

Craik was a psychologist who did his most profound work during the Second World War, and as Rob explained, was really ahead of his time in coming up with ergonomics issues and theories that we're still working with today. And remember that this is a good 5-10 years before the formation of the Ergonomics Research Society (now The Ergonomics Society) in 1949.

There were many gems in Craik's work that stood out for me, not least of all his exposition of the systems approach as necessary to understand the interplay between human and machine. For me, as someone still (relatively!) early in his career, this was a bit of a revelation as I always thought that systems thinking was a relatively recent approach - it's certainly only just getting into the minds of road safety experts (see the Department for Transport's recent consultation - I'll come back to this another time).

The other one that really hit me was how - as Rob explained it - Craik saw ergonomics as a means of genetic modification in design evolution. In other words, we can't wait for design to evolve out the bad genes, as there's too much at stake - we have to accelerate the process. This is a lovely turnaround from what I often teach my students, in that technology and design are nowadays evolving so quickly that they're outpacing the human ability to keep up.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Museums and conferences

It’s been another busy week, with a couple of interesting days providing great opportunities to wave the flag for human-centred design and ergonomics.

On Tuesday I gave a presentation at the Design Museum to other university lecturers in design, as part of the museum’s ‘Design Factory’ student initiative. I won’t steal the museum’s thunder by saying too much about that here; it’ll appear on the museum’s website in due course. But suffice to say the museum has given us the fantastic opportunity to get involved with this initiative and linking it in with the ergonomics exhibition we’re showcasing there later in the year.

The next day I was invited to give a talk at a conference on drink and drug driving, organised by the road safety charity Brake. They’d picked up on my recent experiment on driving when hungover, which I conducted for RSA, the UK’s largest commercial insurer. I’m quite conscious of the fact that the study hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal as yet, so I prefaced the talk with caveats about it being a pilot study – but it seems there isn’t much else in this area as yet, so Brake welcomed my data as a starting point for discussion. And if nothing else, it suggests more work is needed in this area.

The rest of the conference was really interesting too, with a number of presentations on campaigns such as the Think! campaign, ‘Talk to Frank’, and an innovative campaign in Scotland exploiting social media such as Facebook and MSN. Clearly there’s a lot of potential in this area, and whilst I’m trying to tap into some of it with this blog, I’m keen to learn more about harnessing it in my research and public engagement activities – so hopefully the blog will get slicker as time goes on!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Crash-proof cars!

I'm fortunate enough to be involved with various groups through my work with the Ergonomics Society, one of which is the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), as I sit on their Vehicle Design Working Party. At our meeting this week, which was kindly hosted by Thatcham, we got to play with a bunch of new cars fitted with various advanced driver assistance systems.

I'm not going to risk my neck by naming manufacturers, but in short we were able to try a variety of collision mitigation and avoidance systems, as well as different variations on lane departure warning and lane-keeping assist systems. These particularly appealed to me as I'm interested in the effects of such automation on the driver and how the technologies interface with the human.

I've written a paper on how automotive automation can be divided into 'vehicle automation' and 'driving automation' - with the former being all those 'below the line' aspects, which don't impinge on the driver's conscious awareness (such as ABS or ESC), while the latter affect the more 'in your face' aspects of driving (such as ACC or lane-keeping systems). Collision mitigation is an awkward one as it can straddle the line - but in the cars we tried this week, the system only kicks in as a very last-minute attempt to save the day, way after the driver would respond, so in my opinion this falls just on the side of vehicle automation. So it was great to get the chance to try both sorts - and I'd like to share my own personal views on these.

On the whole, the collision mitigation systems were impressive, with successive generations improving on the last (and even a new prototype system that isn't on the market yet, which was widely viewed to be the best so far). Some of them had early warnings, like an icon on the dashboard or an auditory warning - which were really quite ineffectual in such emergency situations. The latest version improves somewhat on these by flashing a massive red light (pretty much a brake light) on your windscreen slightly in advance of intervening itself - giving you at least half a chance to respond.

There was much more variation in application - and opinion - for the lane departure systems though. Different manufacturers opted for different feedback options, whether that's a seat rumble, a steering wheel vibration, or an auditory warning; one manufacturer goes so far as to 'help' the driver by providing gentle resistance to get you back in lane. Personally I felt the steering wheel vibration was most ergonomic, as it's almost exactly what you'd get on a white line rumble strip - so very naturalistic and in line with drivers' expectations. The seat vibration came second for me, with its advantage of being directional (left buttock for left lane excursion and vice versa). I liked the lane-keeping assist, but I thought it was rather subtle and could easily be ignored by most drivers (it feels a bit like a road camber). The auditory warning again was least effective, giving no naturalistic relation to the task nor direction information.

Interface issues aside, the really interesting thing I noticed was the level of debate around the lane-keeping assist/departure warning systems as compared to the collision mitigation systems, with the latter meeting with universal approval from the group. Possibly this might have something to do with the more consistent interfaces, but I think there's also something in the vehicle/driving automation distinction, being as the collision mitigation systems were essentially below the line - like I said, way beyond the point of recovery for human reactions. It really was a safety net. Lane-keeping, on the other hand, was seen as still the driver's domain, and a lot of people were frustrated at the tactile feedback systems - despite these ostensibly being the most 'ergonomic'.

Ultimately, if we are to go down the route of crash-proofing cars through technology (which seems to be the trend - EuroNCAP now assess cars according to their crash avoidance technologies such as ESC), I think we do have to pay attention to the driver/vehicle distinction with automation, and be a lot more careful about how we implement driver automation.

Friday, 1 May 2009

A grand opening

It must be the season for events, as hot on the heels of the Ergonomics Society Anniversary Conference last week, this week it was Brunel University’s turn to steal a little limelight with a major event for the official opening of the Michael Sterling building.

Professor Michael Sterling is a former Vice-Chancellor of Brunel, and having just retired he was the honoured guest at the event. The Michael Sterling building provides extra teaching, research and lab space for the School of Engineering and Design, and is a very modern building with some attractive spaces.

We were privileged in the Human-Centred Design Institute to play our part at the event, starting from the off as Fergus Bisset, who is working with me on the Real World Design exhibition, eloquently opened the proceedings – complete with kilt and all. After the formalities and a buffet lunch, there was a series of seminars showcasing the different research groupings in the School. Dr Hua Dong, Prof Joseph Giacomin and myself gave part of the Design & Manufacture seminar to highlight our work in the HCDI.

All in all we hope it was a positive and beneficial event for our external visitors, but it was even a good chance to catch up on the research activities of our own colleagues in the School – something we don’t get a chance to do often enough. One project which caught my eye was the Brunel X-team electric motorbike, being entered in the Isle of Man TTXGP on June 12th. I’m looking forward to watching that on telly – and only wish we could’ve done something on the human-centred design aspects of the bike!