One of our judges for the Automotive News PACE Awards recently expressed frustration that drivers are ill-prepared to use sophisticated, innovative vehicle technology. For example, they defeat the smart airbag sensor by putting a bag of groceries on a front seat.
Even relatively simple technologies require thoughtful driver preparation to realize their potential and minimize negative side effects. Users and uses of innovative technologies must be better anticipated and managed to realize their theoretical value.
Technology succeeds by being transparent, but people still must be taught to understand and use new technologies properly. However, unless training is packaged and marketed seamlessly, experienced drivers may be offended by the very suggestion that they need training.
Many technologies increase drivers' 'mental workload.' Even technologies intended to simplify the driving task, such as antilock brakes, may create problems because of users' outmoded knowledge and skills.
At first, drivers, unprepared for pedal feedback, were scared into releasing the brakes. More recently, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that untrained drivers' emergency brake-and-steer reactions can send ABS-equipped cars off the road. ABS, working as designed, helps cars respond to drivers' excessive and improper steering inputs.
The technical innovations in 'smart' cars and highways will change many aspects of the driver's task. Such items as stability systems, user-programmable features, proximity sensors, smart cruise controls, night-vision devices, parking guides, crash recording systems and highway/vehicle data communications will require driver preparation.
They also will interact in unexpected ways, as is the case of ABS and the highly responsive steering of modern cars.
The bottleneck on the route to 'smarter' and safer highways, cars and drivers will be driver knowledge; that is, what drivers know about using the technology and what the technology innovators know about what drivers really do.
So the increase in innovative components and systems means new forms of driver preparation, but it also means we must know precisely what to get across. Capturing the full potential of technical innovation requires as much innovation in human factors as in mechanical and electronic factors.
Part of the solution is a dramatic extension of driver education. The automotive industry ought to invest in the necessary research and development.
Sophisticated data-capture by intelligent vehicles and highways will revolutionize driver research by answering old questions about what drivers actually do both 'normally' and before crashing. That will tell us both how to innovate and how to prepare drivers better.
Having drivers benefit from innovation is a new mission for driver ed, which has been associated with school systems and a fragmented mom 'n' pop industry. Driver training itself is only just being awakened from a catatonic stupor by innovative instructional technology, simulators, consolidation, brand development, relationship marketing and quality standards. It is a perfect candidate for that evolution.
Indeed, Ford Motor Co. and Chevrolet have taken positions in branded driver ed by investing in Young Drivers of Canada and Top Driver, respectively. However, those entities are geared to entry-level training to replace high school driver ed. They do not address lifelong training needs, including utilization of innovation.
Injection of capital and participation by automotive industry partners will take driver training, testing and upgrading from a backwater activity to an increasingly mainstream and effective commercial activity. But it must address successful applications of innovative automotive technologies to come.
Here and abroad, those who design, build, distribute and sell vehicles should become integrated 'automobility providers.' They should establish relationships with drivers early, service all their automotive and related educational needs and foster lifelong learning and brand loyalty at every level, including retail.
Only by so doing will manufacturers and drivers get full value-for-money from innovation. The automotive industry can and should lead in supporting innovative technology with the training and upgrading of drivers to go with it.
Dr. William L. Sharfman is director of judging for the Automotive News PACE Awards for innovation among automotive suppliers. Lawrence P. Lonero is a member of the panel of judges for the PACE Awards.