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The importance of good vehicle-driver communication



Driver assistance systems provide vehicle occupants with a multitude of information and warnings. Guido Meier-Arendt, Principal Expert for Human-Machine Interfaces at Continental, talks to VisionZeroWorld about the biggest challenges in designing modern cockpit solutions and the critical importance of cars communicating clearly. 


Guido Meier-Arendt, more and more information is available in modern cars, from driver assistance system alerts to messages from Facebook friends. Isn’t there a danger that too much information could compromise safe driving?

You’re absolutely right, the volume of information in our cars is growing constantly. This makes it particularly important to develop smart solutions which ensure that interactions between drivers and their vehicles are both user-friendly and above all safe. Once we have ascertained exactly which information the driver requires in a given driving situation, we then need to package and communicate this information in a user-friendly manner. This includes combining information from different driver assistance systems. You don’t need a separate vehicle-user interface for every single system. For instance, we look for clever ways of combining adaptive cruise control and lane control information to enable intelligent priority management. The driver should only receive the information that they need in order to drive safely at the current point in time – no more and no less. Driver assistance systems employ an inform-warn-intervene escalation strategy in which the relevant information for the current escalation level is communicated to the driver multimodally – visually, acoustically and haptically.

Guido Meier-Arendt is Principal Expert for Human-Machine Interfaces and Ergonomics in Continental’s Interior division.


Couldn’t this be dangerous? What happens if drivers are used to the interaction system of one particular make of car – for instance acoustic warnings – and then suddenly find themselves confronted with a haptic feedback system when driving a vehicle built by a different manufacturer?

That is a very valid point and is of course something we are working on all the time. The solution is to develop self-explanatory human-machine interface designs which don’t do anything unfamiliar that could confuse drivers accustomed to a different form of communication. Basic information must be packaged and communicated in a way that can be interpreted and understood by absolutely anyone.


But it doesn’t always work, does it? Anyone who has ever driven a rental car and tried to switch on the satnav or adjust the bass on the sound system on the fly knows how frustrating it can be when it simply refuses to do what you want… 

Absolutely, you should never have to find out how a system works by trial and error. Every relevant system in the vehicle must communicate clearly – its messages must be unambiguous and easy to understand. Whenever the steering wheel vibrates, the corresponding information should immediately appear on the display or there should be a voice message warning the driver that a lane departure is imminent, for example. There can be no room for ambiguity.


What are the biggest current challenges in designing HMI solutions?

Creating attractive user experiences. The challenges are particularly apparent in the field of automated driving. On the one hand, you have to meet the basic ergonomic requirements – for instance, the system must ensure that the driver is fully prepared to resume control of the vehicle. At the same time, however, you need to create an attractive experience that allows users to seamlessly resume the communication or entertainment activity of their choice during automated driving. User-centered design is key to creating solutions that reflect users’ needs.


What exactly do you mean by user-centered design?

It’s no good having a new system or new technology that looks great on paper if the interaction with the driver isn’t implemented in a user-friendly manner. We need solutions that can be operated simply and effectively, delivering a high standard of usability together with an enhanced user experience. Drivers should feel safe and well protected in their vehicles. This means that our interaction solutions should provide them with optimal support in every context of use without distracting them from what’s happening on the road, which is of course the most important thing of all. It is crucial to prevent situations like the one you describe, where someone gets flustered because they can’t work out how to program the satnav while they’re driving. It is also important that all users – both young digital natives and those with a few more years of experience at the wheel – should be able to understand and use the new systems.

Intelligent cockpit concepts will become increasingly important in a future where cars drive autonomously. Photo: Continental


What part does HMI play in Continental’s vision of zero road accidents?

It has a vital part to play. The company has started work on several innovations and put in place numerous development projects in the field of integrated human-machine interaction. They all share the goal of improving road safety by ensuring genuinely intuitive collaboration between user and vehicle. At Continental, we have established a “search field” explicitly devoted to optimizing the human-machine interface in line with users’ needs. We are also increasingly adopting a user-centered design approach to ensure that our innovations and future technologies are precisely tailored to users’ wishes and needs. This user-centered approach is in fact critical to the development and design of modern vehicles, which makes it key to the achievement of our Vision Zero.


Continental’s Integrated Cockpit System, which recently won the German Design Council’s Innovation Of The Year award, features large curved glass surfaces with multiple displays and touchscreens, together with haptic feedback … While this may impress design juries, one has to wonder whether the average driver is ready for such futuristic cockpit designs.

There is no reason why an innovation like Continental’s Integrated Cockpit System shouldn’t succeed if it delivers direct, tangible benefits, enhances user comfort and above all improves safety. There is obviously no point in producing a flashy cockpit with futuristic aesthetics and all sorts of high-tech bells and whistles if it ultimately fails to provide the key information in a user-friendly manner, lacks well-designed interaction processes and could even potentially be confusing for the user.

I can see clearly now: Continental has developed a virtual A-pillar that enhances road safety by providing drivers with a clearer view. Photo: Continental


In other words, you stick to the famous “form follows function” design principle?

Exactly. It’s essentially the same problem as a designer chair that wins lots of prizes but is really uncomfortable to sit on. So yes, we stick to the “form follows function” principle, or more accurately “form follows user requirements”. This is particularly important in vehicle cockpits, where we expect to see more and more technological solutions tailored as flexibly as possible to specific contexts of use, with customizable content enabling users’ individual wishes to be met. The inclusion of large display surfaces is one way in which the Integrated Cockpit System responds to these challenges. We took various consumer electronics trends into account in the system’s design, as well as asking ourselves what we needed to do to optimize the interactions on board the vehicle. One of the solutions we came up with was to use haptic alerts. In other words, rather than simply fulfilling the basic ergonomic requirements, the cockpit also contributes to a positive overall in-vehicle experience. And we are confident that users are ready for futuristic cockpit designs like this.


While strong A-pillars play an important role in optimizing crash safety, they also restrict the driver’s field of view. Continental has come up with the idea of developing a virtual A-pillar that the driver can see through …

This is a good example of an innovative proof of concept study that adds genuine value for users by eliminating the forward blind spot created by the A-pillar. There are various road traffic situations where drivers are unable to see everything that is going on as well as they would ideally need to. Our proof of concept demonstrates how special displays can show drivers what is happening in the areas that are hidden from their view. With this system, they really can see everything that is going on – it is as if the A-pillar were transparent. To make this possible, an interior camera tracks the driver’s head movements to ensure that the display provides a realistic perspective on what is happening outside. At the same time, externally mounted Surround View cameras generate a live video feed of the outside environment.


Autonomous driving is the next big thing. But it promises to be quite a challenge, especially for HMI developers …

This is a very important topic. The transition between manual and automated driving in particular will call for completely new approaches to the design of the human-machine dialogue. Intuitive interaction concepts that create confidence and transparency and ensure users’ awareness of the current driving mode will be key to the development of automated driving. If the human driver is no longer solely occupied with driving the vehicle and their role becomes that of a critical user and supervisor in the cockpit, it is essential that they should always know what the vehicle is doing and which driving mode it is in whenever the situation requires them to resume control. This change in the driver’s role and the associated needs and requirements constitutes one of the greatest challenges in the development of automated driving.