The Geneva motor show is coming up, meaning that a new crop of teasers for sleek concept cars and speculation about new models has begun trickling into the news. Cars are mechanical marvels, rolling pieces of aerodynamic sculpture wedded to sophisticated suspensions and powerful engines (or, increasingly motors and battery packs). Design’s role in the automotive industry is generally thought to start and end with a car’s body panels. Occasionally journalists will deign to talk about a particularly swish concept car interior. But recently, carmakers have made concerted efforts to look beyond plastic and steel. The auto industry’s shift toward design thinking pushes improving the more-intangible aspects of the driving experience into the ‘front seat’ and puts human-car interactions at the center of the product development process.
A recent article in The Atlantic, titled Why Ford Hired a Furniture Maker as CEO, provides a window into how design approaches are helping Ford reinvent itself and adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace. The article centers on Jim Hackett, Ford’s new design-thinking-obsessed executive. Before joining Ford, Hackett made human-centered design a priority at office furniture manufacturer Steelcase. There, he hired social scientists to work with designers and technologists who would translate insights about how people interact in office environments into products that would support effective team collaboration and improve employee wellbeing.
At Ford, Hackett is counting on design thinking approaches to contend with massive disruptions in the automotive industry. Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is no longer on the horizon, it is on the streets right now and rapidly improving. For younger Americans, getting a car is not the rite of passage it once was, and more people are considering on-demand rentals and ridesharing as viable alternatives to sinking the thousands of dollars into purchasing an maintaining a car. The challenges associated with these shifts can’t be addressed with engineering, marketing, or styling alone. Adapting to this new consumer landscape requires holistic thinking that begins by stepping into the shoes of customers and understanding the changing role of cars in the lives of drivers and passengers. For Ford, specific features are only developed once the desired user experience is identified and tested with drivers. Once teams start to flesh out a car’s design, having a pre-defined user experience gives all stakeholders a guiding star and provides teams with a common language that helps them avoid wasting resources developing extraneous features.
In Humanizing Cars, Sensitizing Humans, the San Francisco Chronicle goes into greater detail into how human-centered design will be essential to the successful adoption of one technology in particular: autonomous vehicles. The advent of AVs holds the potential to fundamentally reshape the ways people think about and interact with automobiles. AVs are likely to function more like mobility services than the assets (or liabilities) and identity markers cars have been in the past. These changes in the auto industry also extend far beyond the car itself, reshaping how pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of traditional vehicles will interact with AVs. Without a human driver, there is no one for a pedestrian to make eye contact with before crossing in front of a car. 4-way stops become confusing and potentially dangerous if there is no person in the driver seat to wave at oncoming vehicles. According to the Chronicle article’s authors:
[a]utonomous cars will need to understand how humans act, not just when they are driving other cars, but on foot. Human drivers and pedestrians can signal each other with eye contact and hand or body gestures, but robots may not be able to sense such nuanced activity. Pedestrians, meanwhile, may not be able to predict how an autonomous car will behave at a stop sign or crosswalk — assuming they realize the car is autonomous.
AV adoption means researching and addressing fears about safety and building trust in the technology. As part of this effort, automakers are working to design and standardize new signaling systems that can help people interpret an AV’s intentions. At Ford, designers and researchers are experimenting with subtle haptic cues to help drivers feel comfortable with autonomous driving technology, which the author of the Atlantic article describes here:
[a]s we came to the moment in the simulation when, merging onto the interstate, control passed from me to the car, my seat sank down and away from the steering wheel—enough to signal the transfer of power, but not enough to trigger loss-of-control panic. Earlier test-drivers had helped find that exact threshold.
In summation, whether they are creating the future of mobility or are vying to become leaders in another rapidly-changing industry, it is essential that companies place user experience at the center of the product development process. Doing so, teams are better able avoid distractions and keep focused on what matters, both to their customers and to their continued survival in the marketplace.