Strategic design for safer driving

This is the week (or month) that Toyota would like to forget. The firm that revolutionised the otherwise unglamorous manufacturing business is in a tough place. The jury is out on the causal pathways, and on whether this signals the end of Toyota or whether it will rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

Car recalls are nearly as old as the history of the car itself. Risks range from fire hazards to bursting tyres. But when there are problems with brake pedals or accelerators, cars can be unsafe at any speed, as the polemical but timely book by Ralph Nader argued.

But cars do not drive themselves. People drive them. Before you start wondering if this is a “guns don’t kill people, people do” type of argument, please read on. The degree to which the car is safe or unsafe on the road depends on the car as much as it does on the driver. The driver controls how the car reacts to the developments in its environment – other drivers, hazards and unforeseeable events.

So while car makers recall and repair cars, and insurers hasten to confirm that insurance cover on those repaired cars will remain valid, I wonder about another question:

How can design shape driver behaviour and his/ her interaction with the car and its environment?

Here are my thoughts. Share yours in comments.

Designing the environment: Where to begin?

There are several elements in the mix here. Including, amongst others, the use of road and speed cameras to catch bad drivers, better education by schools, better training, responsible car advertising, to a change in societal attitude to inconsiderate driving. Syamant captures some of the frustrations of driving in India, not best known for its driving conditions, and discusses possible fixes in this blog post. The comments are worth a read too.

It’s a tall order. One could argue that redesigning the environment probably should start at better urban planning, that reduces the need to drive, makes it easy to walk or bike or use the bus. The discussion can go on and on.

Most recently, however, Mercedes Benz in the UK has sought to tackle one piece of this complex jigsaw  through better training, about which I have written earlier.

Designing the machine: Simplify or die!

In the last 50 years, cars have increasingly incorporated safety features. Seat belts, for instance, are now mostly de rigeur as are other safety features. Cars are also getting more “intelligent” features which can aid the driver pre-empt or correct costly errors. Possibly even create a false sense of security and encourage speeding?

At the same time, cars can now do top speeds over 250mph. Gratuitous pictures of said fast cars can be found here, since fortunately the price tags mean not too many of these are on the roads! But supercars aside, my regular car can do a top speed of 200 mph.

Needless to say that fast cars need fast response times.

While distractions inside the cars grow and grow. You can pick tracks from 12 CDs right from the controls on your steering wheel; adjust the speakers to be just so; fiddle with seat heating or adjust the air-conditioning for the nitpicky passengers. Recently I even felt sorry for a driver, driving after dark on the motorway. The sat-nav screen, inside the otherwise dark car, within the driver’s peripheral vision, was playing a DVD. The shotgun rider, as well as the back seat passengers were merrily singing along.  The driver was driving fast while coping with the dazzle inside and outside the car.

In short, modern cars are full of distractions, safety features can encourage recklessness and cars can speed up pretty quickly. The driver’s attention however hasn’t evolved to keep up with the collective onslaught of all these.

So what’s my point? I am arguing for “simplified design of cars”.

Since cars have much computing power inside them now, everything major should be programmable on the key hob. The rest should be removed or set to a default. There is plenty of comfort in the car now for passengers and driver alike. But in the main, car design should be simplified to serve the driver’s need to pay attention to the road, and make swift decisions as situations develop.

Designing the incentives: Custom-made insurance?

Here is an interesting TV ad from Axa Insurance that uses ‘pavement rage’ to illustrate how experience in driving can drive insurance premia down. The 30 seconds needed to watch it are worth it.

With much innovation in machine design, the actuarial models still lag behind. Searching for “car insurance innovation” brings up next to nothing notable. And uninsured car drivers still drive everybody’s average premium up.

But the health insurance industry has lessons. On offer from them are incentives for individuals who use the gym regularly and have other good health behaviours, and health accounts where a person can save money for later years when he/ she may need it. On the anvil are shorter term health insurance policies so one neither pays for nor unfairly benefits from being lumped with other less or more healthy age groups.

So how about designing “car insurance in step with individual driving behaviour”? Nature of roads most driven, speeding, driving patterns and so on. The technology to establish such profiles already exists and is getting better. Insurance redesign could add a powerful, quantifiable incentive to safer driving.

So what?

While environmental redesign remains a tough and complex challenge, the car makers and the car insurers can respond more swiftly.

As more and more drivers get on the crowded roads in developing markets, it’s time they did.

What do you think?

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