Automotive design has evolved continuously from the time of the first horseless carriages.
Historical eras have focused on goals such as engine power, component standardization for manufacturing, aerodynamic efficiency, the joining of chassis elements into a unibody, reliability, safety, comfort and quality. Automotive design has moved from challenge to challenge, improving the vehicles along the way.
In recent years the priority for many automakers has been that of experience.
Reliability, safety, comfort and quality have become minimum requirements, while enjoyable experiences have become the unique sales propositions. The design emphasis shifted significantly in the direction of people. And it can even be suggested that recent years have been an era of automotive experience design.
Road vehicles have many well-established interactions with primary controls, secondary controls, instruments, mirrors, navigator and infotainment system.
Intuitive toggles, windshield wiper stalks which resemble the wiper and move in the same rotary manner, and digital screens that adopt familiar conventions from the world of computers all provide easily understood affordances that people rely upon.
While intuitively obvious, it is sometimes forgotten that all the interactions are based on the human rather than on the machine. After more than 100 years of automotive design the people’s needs a well met.
Nevertheless, the recent trend of computers on wheels, the growing automation and the arrival of autonomous vehicles have all led to new interactions.
While traditional interactions tended to be physical and deterministic, many of the new ones are more semiotic, linguistic and even emotional in nature. With current navigators and infotainment systems it can feel more like arguing with another person than interacting with a machine.
As the interactions have increased in number and complexity the concepts of usability and user centered design have become influential.
Memorability, learnability, utility, effectiveness and efficiency have become priorities. Performance metrics borrowed from the world of computers such as task success, time on task, efficiency and learnability have all become tools used by automakers and their Tier 1 suppliers. New terms have entered the automotive lexicon such as “frictionless interaction” and “algorithmic transparency”.
And as the interactions have increased so has the amount of design work involving people.
More and more of the design decisions are about getting the best possible human interactions. Simplicity is a goal, as illustrated by recent developments such as Jaguar Land Rover’s adoption of what3words in its navigation system.
New metaphors have been experimented for systems such as the dashboard, as with Audi’s so-called "virtual cockpit." Trying out new human-machine interface opportunities with people has become more frequent, more involved and more critical to enhancing the driving experience.
As more of the design work has involved people, so too it has involved human centered design. personas, extreme users, scenarios, customer journeys, empathy maps, Wizard of Oz approaches and co-design techniques have become as common in some offices as computer-animated design systems and control software.
Ford has recently gone as far as launching its D-Ford design startup, which adopts a human centered design approach to “drive human progress through empathy, creativity and design.”
Meanwhile, the Renault has developed a form of community driven innovation that involves staff volunteering and co-designing within the company itself.
As automotive design evolves to meet the challenges of the 21st century it is nearly certain that human centered design methods will be increasingly deployed to develop the many new interactions.
Meanings, metaphors and ethics may soon become every bit as influential as materials, powertrains and aerodynamics. Counterintuitively, as automation advances, so too does the focus on the humans.