Kim Vicente has saved lives in hospitals and helped prevent nuclear plant accidents by looking at machine design through the eyes and touch of the people who run the things.
But when he sees automobiles with high-tech navigation displays and computerized devices, Vicente shudders at the thought of being on the same road with some of them.
Vicente doesn't work for an automaker or a supplier, but what he has to say about vehicles is worth hearing. He is one of the world's major innovators in human factors engineering for complex systems.
The term "human factors" is shorthand for how people interact with machines, both physically and mentally. Vicente, a University of Toronto (utoronto.ca) researcher, sees a big gap between those who design devices and the people who use them.
"We have this division," Vicente says. "People are trained to look at technology, and for the most part don't look at people. Other people are trained to look at people, and for the most part don't look at technology."
At a time when the industry is paying close attention to driver distraction, IT specialists are increasingly bumping up against limits to human factors as new features and systems are placed in cars.
Auto interior makers have focused on how users expect car interiors to perform and already are doing one thing that Vicente says all technology makers must do: Watch people as they use the technology.
Lear Corp. (lear.com) and Johnson Controls Inc. (jci.com) maintain research labs in which drivers can be observed.
Intier Automotive Inc. (intier.com), which supplies seat mechanisms and interior systems to automakers and suppliers, studies observation when designing its mechanical systems.
Motorola (motorola.com) has gone a step further. It has a team of cultural anthropologists examining how 30 to 40 families use their vehicles. Jacqui Dedo, Motorola marketing vice president, says: "You don't want to give people more than they're capable of handling."
These are good steps, Vicente says, but he adds that observation may miss the bigger questions that surround the human-machine interface - things he may be able to see a little clearer in his role as an observer.
"The biggest problem is this compulsion people face to sort of wreck what is usually a pretty good design to put all this stuff in," he says.
First, new features coming into cars are not standardized, and the lack of consensus leaves drivers at a loss when it comes to finding important things.
Change cars, and it's like crossing an international barrier where the language is different.
Second, the most-equipped cars when it comes to technology are likely going to the wrong users - people who may be unwilling or unable to learn how to use the bells and whistles.
Each camp - the mechanistic view and the humanistic view - has only half the picture, Vicente contends.