Week 10: Trucks of Tomorrow

Umeå is now firmly in the grip of the winter even if we have yet to see any significant amount of snow. But temperatures of -9° in the morning and a slowly freezing river are most certainly enough for me to declare the arrival of my least favourite season.

Student housing blocks in the early morning light. There is ice everywhere and we have seen our fair share of nasty bike accidents and pedestrians slipping in the last few days.

Student housing blocks in the early morning light. There is ice everywhere and we have seen our fair share of nasty bike accidents and pedestrians slipping in the last few days.

After the race to finish the Rock Sofa concept on time and the warm and fuzzy feeling of having accomplished something in the last weeks, I now turn my attention to the next project. This is going to be the first major assignment in our Masters of Interaction Design program and will keep us busy up until mid January. The title of the project is "Working in the Truck of Tomorrow" and our goal is to come up with a concept for the driver environment of trucks in the year 2030. The difficulty in this project lies in understanding and analysing the behaviour and values of truck drivers (or 'professional users') – something none of us is familiar with. For this Emily, Migle and Kalliroi and me will have to demonstrate our research, interviewing and task-analysing skills. We then need to evaluate what the important aspects are – especially interesting as some of the users' opinions might be contradictory – and come up with a refined design proposal. Our final deliverables will also have to include a written report that describes the design process and the final design as well as a personal reflection statement. We are fortunate to have experts from the Sonic Studio at Interactive Institute Piteå, representatives from Scania and the tutoring staff from UID available to us.

Despite my personal quips about the cold I must admit there is also a certain aesthetic to it that even I like.

Despite my personal quips about the cold I must admit there is also a certain aesthetic to it that even I like.

Week 10 was probably one of most presentation laden weeks of the semester.  The onslaught started last week when the 'Head of Design' at iconmobile Berlin – Andreas Wenger – came to visit us in Umeå and gave us a presentation on automotive interface design. I want to share a few of the things I have learnt from him with you.

I had always wondered why the interfaces and technological components in automobiles were of such inferior quality when compared to the smartphones and other gadgets that today's driver also carries in their pockets. To put it bluntly, even the most expensive cars have interfaces that lag at least half a decade behind our iPhones, iPads and laptops. It turns out that this is a big problem for the car industry. Imagine the shock on a customers face when finding out that their in-car entertainment system runs into the thousands of pounds when configuring his car online. Andreas Wenger gave two explanations on this. Firstly, the cost of designing and developing these systems is very high. And given that the patriarchic and conservative structure of companies in the automotive sector, they have little interest in sharing their design and development efforts with their competitors. Secondly, the costs of the individual components are a lot higher for the car manufacturers as they plainly cannot place orders in the realms of those that Apple, Samsung and other technology leaders can place. This is obvious when you think about the difference in quantities in iPhones and Mercedes are sold each year. And finally, a big part of automotive design is designing for component reuse. This leads to the issue that cars costing hundreds of thousands of dollars have the same in care entertainment systems as the budget models going for less than twenty thousand – albeit with a different skin.

Our IxD 1 class in action on a study trip to see the newest developments in truck interfaces.

Our IxD 1 class in action on a study trip to see the newest developments in truck interfaces.

We also had a short lecture by Johan Fagerlönn and Stefan Lindberg from the Interactive Institute on highly automated trucks. They introduced us to different levels of automation and gave examples of them: system might inform the driver that there is an obstacle on the road (perceptual support), or the system might inform the driver about the weight or temperature of an object on the road (analytical support), or the system may recommend the driver changes lane to avoid a collision (decision support) or the system may automatically cause the truck to change lanes to avoid the obstacle (action support). There are also a lot of advantages that come with the automating the task of driving. The most common arguments are that it increases traffic safety, enables fuel savings through eco-friendly driving and that it increases comfort and saves time for the drivers themselves.

The truck interface (or main instrument panel) of a Volvo truck produced in 1958 (Model: LV150). I really like the simplicity and quality of materials used.

The truck interface (or main instrument panel) of a Volvo truck produced in 1958 (Model: LV150). I really like the simplicity and quality of materials used.

Since our task will be to come up with a multi-modal interface (as in an interface that involves more then one sense) we then delved into the subject of sound feedback. Using sound as an interface is interesting as it can free us from being visually overloaded. This is especially relevant in driving situations where we'd definitely prefer the driver to maintain his visual attention to the traffic situation. When designing sound feedbacks it is important to be aware of the connections we form between the materials and the sounds they produce. There's a simple trick you can use to determine how much a certain sound is hardwired in our brains: just expose test subjects to a mix of visual and sound material (e.g. show two wine glasses clinking but play the sound derived from two wooden objects touching). There are a lot of examples of sound feedback being employed today. For instance, my camera plays an electronic shutter sound to make the users aware of the picture being taken – even if the actual sound the shutter in the camera makes is so quiet that it can only be noticed by the person taking the picture. One could also think about implementing a sound feedback to indicate how full the memory card is (tone modulation would probably work pretty well in this case).

As a stark contrast to the old Volvo truck from 1958, here are the instrument panels that the truck driver of today has to deal with.

As a stark contrast to the old Volvo truck from 1958, here are the instrument panels that the truck driver of today has to deal with.

We also had Stas Krupenia from Scania give us two presentations this week. The first was on 'Understanding Disasters from a socio-technical perspective' and dealt with the lessons learned from the Third Mile Island nuclear plant accident. He made a point showing that even in systems that have multiple layers of security, disasters have and will happen. It was interesting to learn how there were seemingly unrelated faults at each layer of security that lead to the disasters. He then presented solutions as how to map the complexity of these kind of systems and how to reduce the likelihood of them happening again. The second presentation was on the 'Methods of Designing for Autonomous Systems' (MODAS) project that was directly relevant for our trucks of tomorrow project. In it he showed approaches on how to design future autonomous systems and drew a parallel to the automation problems that plagued the aviation industry throughout the last decades. This unfortunately meant going through one plane crash accident after another until all of us felt increasingly squeamish about the fact we were going to fly back home for Christmas. An interesting parallel of all incidents seemed to have been the overconfidence or over-reliance of the pilots on the automation system because its abilities and shortcomings weren't completely understood.

The view towards the Umeå Bridge before the sun rises. I often take this way when walking to school.

The view towards the Umeå Bridge before the sun rises. I often take this way when walking to school.

There were also more lectures and workshops on academic writing and human computer interaction by Linnéa Dimitriou and Parag Deshpande respectively. And it was Emily and my turn to lead the discussions on this week’s literature circle (ISO standard 9241-210: Human-centered design for interactive systems). On top of that we started with our weekly reflection groups on teamwork with psychology students from the Umeå University main campus. The purpose of these is to reflect on what it is like to work in teams and become more aware of our roles and responsibilities within it.

Friday also marked the start of the Umeå 'Festival of Light'. The photo depicts the beautiful installation made by Umeå's school children.

Friday also marked the start of the Umeå 'Festival of Light'. The photo depicts the beautiful installation made by Umeå's school children.

Next week will bring the user research we have all been looking forward to: I'll get the opportunity to follow around a trucker for a whole day. It's going to be great!