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?

6 thoughts on “Strategic design for safer driving

  1. In-car distractions have increased dramatically even as technological complexity and driving situations have become more difficult. The so called safety features in a modern car seem to lull the driver into a false sense of security. It results in an unacceptable and risky approach to driving.

    The consequent loss of life, long term injuries to people are actually hidden from most. We never seem to learn from the experiences of others ..

    On the question of complexity, this article seems to suggest that Toyota failed to manage complexity..


  2. Firstly about Toyota – wondering for such a great co. where did all the QC and pro-active strategies go?
    Very nicely pointed out the cars should be simpler to operate. Recent ex in India – a brand new BMW during trial run got stuck with a trailer caught fire, confused with controls, could not get out in time as doors got locked & all 4 in the car died. Similar case during Mumbai floods where all boys were choked to death as they could not open the doors of Pajero. Diana also died in the world’s safest car …I fully agree that more the safety features more the temptation of high speed and more the complications… Wonderful write.. thanks for sharing 🙂

    @Gagrin: Thanks for your note and for sharing some of the India experiences. Accidents aside, I am afraid no design can be totally fool-proof. One has to be familiar with the car one is driving or riding in, not just for emergencies but as you also mention, for driving at high speeds. As for Toyota, please see the link Syamant has shared in his comment. The whole truth may take time to emerge. Thanks again.


  3. Hmmmm. So the more the safety features in a car, the more the chances of moral hazard? And insurance to potentially provide one of the solutions to this? Interesting. But it is probably the way to go, since I firmly believe that a monetary penalty, in the form of a higher premium, will work better than most exhortations to drive responsibly.

    IMO, nothing is more critical than the driver’s concentration and reflexes. Yes, reflexes can get sluggish by being lulled into a false sense of security. And while reflexes can be honed – so better training is definitely one way forward – reflexes also slow with age. Perhaps older people should be encouraged to switch to slower cars. Is that practical? I don’t know.

    As you have pointed out, concentration is the more difficult aspect to tackle, what with the plethora of distractions available inside the car. Design is certainly a very important factor here, but even more important is that the driver understands the responsibility that goes with driving – because distractions don’t always come built into the car. For example, I have a colleague who uses his Blackberry while driving – scrolling and checking mail, even typing out replies. It is this kind of behaviour that needs to be discouraged, because even in a Standard Herald, a driver like that is a menace on the roads.

    Having said that, it’s probably easier to change (as in redesign) cars than to change human behaviour.


    Quirky Indian

    @QuirkyIndian: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You ask if older people should switch to slower cars. Depends on what you mean by ‘old’ and what you mean by ‘slower’. In the UK and in the US, data show teenage drivers to be riskier and more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. Around 65% of teen deaths happen when another teenager is driving. In the comments on my earlier post on the Mercedes Benz Driving Academy, we had discussed the possibility of less distracting entry level cars for teenagers, till they become more experienced drivers. Older drivers still have a better driving record than younger drivers. As for your friend using Blackberry, apart from the never-ending guilt of killing someone on the road, these recent convictions and jail sentences may be sobering. That Indian courts are much slower to process these things is a different kind of hazard altogether.


  4. Simplification can end up making the driver a mere monitor of activity, rather than being actively involved, and when that happens, they are no longer in the game. In a lot of ways, drivers whose minds are drifting far from the task at hand may well be as dangerous as the fellow who is texting on a blackberry.

    I also think incentives only work for those who likely don’t need them. Ie the safe driver gets incentives to continue in that path. They would save money, but had they not saved money, its not as if they would decide, hey lets get reckless. The chronically unsafe driver, who likely is already paying huge premiums is unlikely to change their ways, and in many cases, if faced with additional costs would simply go uninsured.

    One possibility, albeit its quite a ways out there, would be to monitor the driver’s physiology to determine if they are “in the game” or not. Basically, if ones pyscho-motor functions were deemed to be subpar, they could be notified of the fact, as well as possibly third parties, parents, etc such that appropriate action could be taken. Obviously such might go too far with things like automated law enforcement notification, speed-limiting, or even vehicle disablement…


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