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Rigs before rides: UX considerations for the self-driving vehicle landscape

Daimler Truck unveiled a few weeks ago what is potentially the future of big rig trucking. The Inspiration Truck is a partially autonomous semi that has driven more than 10,000 miles on Nevada highways and could revolutionize the way that goods are shipped across the country. Instead of focusing on consumer vehicles like many car manufacturers and tech companies, Daimler Truck thinks that the more immediate future of autonomous driving lies in trucking as evidenced by the Inspiration and the July 2014 unveiling of the Future Truck 2025 by Mercedes-Benz (also owned by Daimler AG).

Are we ready for this change?

GfK conducted a recent global study of 5,800 consumers in which 66% of those surveyed said that the idea of self-driving cars is appealing. That appeal is even higher (over 70%) for those ages 44 and under. In addition to driver opinion, a number of other factors need to occur, including confidence in the accuracy and safety of these systems, state legislation to allow interstate operation, and clear definition of liability in the event of crashes.

Why is the self-driving truck a trailblazer?

Despite the implementation hurdles, big rig trucks are a prime target for autonomous driving. Drivers in the logistics and shipping world perform different tasks than passenger car drivers. They complete more training, meet more standards and regulations, pass more safety checks, and drive more often on highway versus city roads. When using a self-driving truck on the job, a driver shares similarities with an industrial worker operating automated machinery or a pilot using auto pilot.

In addition to the synergy with the truck driver role and tasks, we can anticipate a clearer return on investment for self-driving trucks. Autonomous trucks will potentially lower insurance costs, increase availability to manage logistics, create opportunities to travel in a fuel-saving convoy, and reduce driver fatigue. Truckers proportionally drive many more hours and are more likely to experience fatigue than car drivers. The time spent without their focus on the driving task may help reduce fatigue and thus reduce fatigue-related crashes. Conversely, this lower need to monitor the driving environment likely reduces autonomous truck drivers’ situational awareness which can mean slower reaction times in an emergency.

How will autonomous interfaces support the driver?

While ROI is a main focus of our manufacturer and supplier clients, we as user experience (UX) professionals focus on the user-centered design of these new human-machine interfaces (HMIs). What information will the HMI convey to the driver and how? One important function of the self-driving truck’s interface will be to alert the driver when to tune in enough to take over the driving task on local roads and in certain conditions. How will it alert the driver about any expected changes, and especially about unexpected ones? Interface characteristics such as alert location, timing, and modality (visual, auditory, or haptic feedback) need to be designed with human capabilities in mind.

The future for autonomous driving will be built upon financial savings, improved safety, and a well-designed and supportive driving experience.

Melinda Jamil is a Senior Research Director and leads the automotive user experience practice in the US and Ryan Carney is a User Experience Lead Specialist with a focus on the technology sector.

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