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ILP Institute Insider

March 14, 2013

A Truly Customized Vehicle

Redesigning user interface to make cars more responsive and safer for an aging consumer population.

Steve Calechman

Bryan Reimer works on cars. For him, it’s not about speed, gas mileage or looks. He just wants them to be smarter and more personal to allow for greater flexibility and freedom. As a Research Scientist in the MIT AgeLab and Associate Director of The New England University Transportation Center at MIT, Reimer focuses on human factors and cognitive engineering in automobiles, namely optimizing the driver-vehicle interface and the design of intuitive, autonomous systems that promote safety throughout a driver’s lifespan.

Bryan Reimer
Research Scientist, MIT Agelab
Associate Director, NEUTC
For new technologies to be fully integrated and truly succeed, the auto industry needs to help make it easier for drivers to learn, trust, and ultimately buy, new applications. But what it doesn’t require, in many cases, is entirely new innovation. As Reimer says, “There’s a remarkable amount of great technology already setting on the shelf at this point.” His research is about getting the promise of this technology to the public in a form that they are comfortable using.

Finding out what works

One area of Reimer’s research focuses on how the driver takes in information from the vehicle. Too much visual demand can compromise safety. For example, Reimer’s work has shown that substituting a humanist typeface for a square grotesque typeface results in an automotive interface that is easier to read and can mean less diverted attention. Reimer also works to quantify the cognitive demand of interactions using the peripheral physiological measures of heart rate and skin conductivity. “They provide great power in understanding how cognitively demanding an activity may be at a given point in time without imposing any added demand on the driver,” he says.

But workload is relative. What’s difficult for a 60-year-old may be nothing to a teenager. The goal is to design and implement technology that can be customized to the specific driver. In the past, cars were essentially fixed at delivery—there was a radio, climate control and a few gauges, with information that never changed, Reimer says.

“Now we’re dealing with a software environment,” he says. Preferences can be tailored and updated almost instantaneously. People can do that, and are accustomed to doing that, with their smartphones and computers. They should be able to with their cars. For some older drivers it’s about prioritizing utility; for others it can be about style, since, “No one wants to drive the old man’s car,” Reimer says.

One of the understandable obstacles is that the auto industry always moves slower than consumer electronics, since safety is a paramount concern—make the wrong change and the effect can be disastrous. But providing options is a necessary step to meet the needs of an aging society. “How do we provide an individual with a tuning knob to adjust the font in an interface to something that is comfortable to see?” Reimer asks. Other areas of the interface need to less demand and more convenience during use—voice applications need to be more fluid and touch pads and other input technologies need to come with tactile sensation to provide confirmation of a selection.

Extending the life of the driver

Along with convenience, Reimer’s work is one of practicality and safety. For a long time, cars have been designed mainly for middle-aged men. But the reality is that women are more involved in purchasing decisions, and, more importantly, baby boomers are the demographic with money to buy new vehicles. That new reality requires new priorities so cars serve drivers’ current and future needs.

As boomers age, they want to remain in their homes, but accessible public transportation can often be insufficient, heightening the importance of the individual car’s design and interface capabilities. Reimer’s work looks at the essential role of autonomous systems, such as self-parking technology or adaptive cruise control with brake assist, which may be helpful in enhancing older adult mobility.

One challenge is whether people will use these technologies enough to benefit from them. For some, adaptation isn’t an issue, but, for others, there’s a resistance to try new things. An educational element, beyond simply reading a manual or going on YouTube, will be needed to overcome these barriers. Providing a new way of educating the consumer, perhaps analogous to the Apple Geek Bar, might come with an up-front cost to the auto industry, but Reimer says that it would be an ultimately worthwhile investment for everyone. Fear decreases, and drivers may well end up wanting to use and pay for such services. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. The industry finds new revenues streams and older adults are able to remain in their cars and be independent for longer periods of time, Reimer says.

Taking it another step

Reimer sees value in developing a more aware car. “In essence, our ability to control features through microprocessors and sensing technology will increasingly enhance the relationship we have with the car,” he says. It’s not just the fonts and sounds, but it’s the ability to use autonomous systems to make real-time adjustments based on what the driver needs and what the driver is capable of.

It could be assisting a driver in reducing their stress level when stuck in traffic. It could involve monitoring physical conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It might involve tailoring safety systems to include physiological aging factors, such as adjusting airbag deployment to consider a driver’s level of bone density loss.

But autonomous control also comes with risks. A reduced workload can reduce focus on the road. The literature on supervisory control suggests that drivers need some kind of regular demand to remain attentive, Reimer says. In addition, drivers will, for the foreseeable future, need to be ultimately responsible for retaking control of the vehicle since the traffic environment is a dynamic system that is constantly changing; autonomous systems have limits and may not function under conditions such as falling snow, sensors covered by mud, roadway markings being obscured, or an obstacle in the road that is stationary instead of moving.

The challenge is understanding what the driver is capable of and having the vehicle make supportive adjustments, especially in the presence of demands that people can’t perceive on their own. Reimer is tackling this challenge by testing measures, such as eye tracking and physiological sensors, which provide objective data and insight into cognitive workload and human response. “This really has the potential to be the future of state detection,” he says.

But having this smarter, more intuitive car isn’t solely dependent upon developing new, underlying technologies. Over the last 20-30 years, that’s been a success of MIT, “inventing the new.” Reimer argues that while we can and should continue to develop new technologies, many elements already exist to make exciting changes in the next 15 years. “What we really need to focus on is a parallel investment in human systems engineering so that we deliver these technologies to the home, car and workplace in ways that people can truly benefit from them,” he says.