Brunel warns of car design danger

Brunel University has issued research warning that current vehicle design trends can make drivers less aware of what is happening around them

Brunel University’s Driving Research Laboratory has issued research highlighting the dangers of current vehicle design trends, which are making drivers less aware of what is happening around them and more isolated through reduced vehicle feedback.

‘Our research demonstrates the need for car designers to balance technology advances with user-centric design, to ensure drivers have appropriate levels of vehicle feedback and unimpaired situational awareness,’ said Dr Guy Walker of the Driving Research Laboratory at the School of Engineering and Design.

‘Cars provide timely “informal chatter” such as engine noise and road noise, which keeps us attentive and informed of our situation on the road. If this feedback is removed through car design innovations, the whole nature of driving could change completely, potentially putting lives at risk.’

Using on-road trials on a fixed 22.5km route, the researchers found that drivers of modern, highly refined vehicles referred less to the behaviour of their vehicle and how it was responding to the road environment compared to drivers of older cars, which put them in touch with the road.

The research proved that drivers are acutely sensitive to auditory and tactile feedback, for example engine noise and steering feel, and use this feedback to monitor vehicle speed without having to constantly look at the speedometer. Modern design could mean drivers are becoming more isolated in their cars from the outside environment, and less aware of what is happening around them as a result, which could be hazardous.

The research also demonstrated that drivers of newer car models compensate, in terms of their perception and prediction of events, for the impact of this reduced vehicle feedback. However, as drivers can only concentrate on so many things at once, the limit of this ability to compensate is unknown and presents severe consequences should drivers fail.

‘Driving is a complex and dynamic activity. With the advent of new technologies, which remove vehicle feedback and change the driver’s role, we need to be careful we don’t make drivers the equivalent of passengers in their own cars, who are not necessarily in control, or aware of and anticipating changes on the road environment,’ said Walker.