Cliff Kuang on UX Design for Self-Driving Cars

With news every week about yet more self-driving cars (not to mention Uber’s repeated robotic middle finger to the whole world), it is interesting to read Cliff Kuang’s article in FastCo-Design about “The Secret UX Issues That Will Make (Or Break) Self-Driving Cars” (originally published in February).

The main point of the piece is that for driverless cars to succeed, it is that not getting lost and not killing people isn’t enough. People must want to use them, and, most importantly, feel safe and relaxed.

The goal isn’t to replace the unpleasantness of driving with the unpleasantness of riding in a robot car, it is to replace driving with having a nice ride.  Current efforts fall short on this.

Illustrating this point, Kuang  describes a video of a man trying his self-driving car.

“He hasn’t replaced driving with, say, watching a movie or relaxing—instead, he’s replaced the stress of driving with something worse. He looks at the road, he looks at the wheel, he looks at his hands. He’s scared. And he’s smart to be scared.”

This is a horrible experience, even if the technology works flawlessly.  And there are many such videos on YouTube.

And, as Kuang says, this is a design problem.

In contrast to the YouTube horror shows, he recounts an experience with a self-driving Audi: “The car, by design, was calming me before any worries could surface.

Kuang interviewed Brian Lathrop, who leads Audi’s development effort about how they are designing the experience of operating a care that drives itself. The Audi group is striving to design a self driving car that you can trust.

He boils down the design philosophy to ‘3+1’ things that the human rider/operator needs to know:

  • Who is driving (me or the car)?
  • What is it going to do next?
  • What is the car seeing?
  • When does control transition between me and the car?

The article describes the careful design that tells you what is going on, what is coming soon, and what is possible for you to do. The controls and feedback are prominent and designed to be calming. (They eschew red or green lights, which unconsciously signal ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.) The experience is said to quickly become “boring”—which is actually what they are shooting for.

Another theme in their design is to “retrofit” familiar technology, rather than make up completely new metaphors. For example, one concept uses the familiar steering wheel, pulling it away forward to signal automatic driving, enabling the human to grab the wheel and pull it back to take control. The idea is to feel comfortable and “obvious”.

Lathrop’s training in psychology and experience designing aircraft cockpit controls has taught him to be concerned above all that the human user not be confused about the state of the system.This is what causes air disasters, and will also cause car crashes.

A person operating an automated car needs to clearly understand the state of the car at all times (this is what the 3+1 principles are about). Following this principle, the Audi  has displays that show a diagram of the nearby traffic—to show that the car sees what you see—and indications that a turn is going to happen.

Part of the challenge is to manage human expectations for the technology, both as operators and, in the case of cars, as pedestrians faced with automated vehicles. Expectations are conditioned by a combination of personal experience, by subtle  behavior, and by messages about the capabilities of the system. For example, Tesla’s decision to call the systems ‘Autopilot’ sets expectations far beyond the capability of the current technology.  And a robot car that behaves “politely” enjoys the confidence of pedestrians (rightly or wrongly).

I think it is instructive that this group at Audi has been working for more than four years, patiently learning how to do it right, and how to make the ride “boring”. This contrasts with “the Silicon Valley mindset of just dropping beta tests upon an unsuspecting populace” (and in the case of Uber, shoving them down the throat of the populace). This “beta dropping” is, as Kuang says, “not only naive, but also counterproductive.

My own reaction as I read this article, was “phew!”  It’s a relief that some grown ups are working on the problem.

  1. Cliff Kuang, The Secret UX Issues That Will Make (Or Break) Self-Driving Cars, in 2016.


(PS.  Wouldn’t “Just Dropping Beta” be a good name for a band?)

Robot Wednesday

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