Woman interacting with car interface

Designing for the driver

How car manufacturers are using eye tracking to keep us comfortable and safe behind the wheel

User Experience User interface design Wearable eye tracking Tobii Pro Glasses 3

Why is understanding driver behavior important?

The history of automotive safety is marked by a few groundbreaking design concepts. The seatbelt in 1958, anti-locking brakes in 1966, airbags in 1981. Ever since these pivotal moments in car construction, tweaks and alterations have been made to strengthen the exterior of the car, improve crumple zones, and even prevent the car from flipping over. But car manufacturers have always designed with a limited understanding of the most complex factor in any driving situation: the driver themself. Eye tracking is ushering in the newest revolution in car safety.

Understanding the experience of the driver has become the defining focus of safety development in the industry. Since we now have cars that can survive anything from high-impact collisions to submersion in water, and high-speed hydroplaning, the emphasis has naturally progressed to that of prevention. We know that more than 90% of accidents on the road are caused by driver error, and with the growing busyness of car interiors docked with sat-nav systems, entertainment features, and dashboard dials, it’s only going to get worse. But by building car interiors that intersect with natural human behavior and attention, we could potentially make it easier for drivers to respond positively in dangerous situations. Looking beyond safety, design that focuses on the user experience means that the act of driving will only get easier and more enjoyable.

How eye tracking works

Truly user-centric design is a nice idea, but how is it going to work in the real world? The answer is: in the real world. Using eye tracking solutions, car manufacturers can take their studies out of the limited scope of the lab and test their concepts out on participants in authentic scenarios. Wearable eye tracking devices allow designers to measure the gaze patterns of drivers while using the car in a real setting or engaging with a simulator. Either way, the ways in which road users engage with the design features will indicate any potential distractions, disturbances, and dangers that would have previously gone unnoticed. Analyzing the eye tracking data also helps designers to smooth out mundane action sequences like connecting a mobile phone or inputting an address into the sat-nav, ensuring that users are brought closer to the simple act of driving without the frustrating bolt-ons.

Designing non-distracting interfaces

Spanish car manufacturer SEAT decided to conduct their own eye tracking study to analyze the effects of their infotainment system on driver awareness and attention. SEAT’s priority, as with any automotive designer, is safety. While infotainment systems are practically essential for any modern car, the number of features has the potential to draw the driver’s eyes away from the road for longer and longer periods. Having used Tobii Pro Glasses 3 in a controlled simulator environment, participants demonstrated where they intuitively expected to find key information such as temperature and battery life. Re-designing the screen to display this information in the way most people naturally searched for it has the potential to cut view time down and increase safety. Making their infotainment features more accessible also has the potential to boost general enjoyment during the act of driving, allowing whoever is behind the wheel to be able to focus and have fun while out on the road.

The applications of eye tracking in automotive design

SEAT’s study shows us more than how to redesign infotainment systems, it displays the potential for eye tracking in understanding the factors at play in distraction behind the wheel. As we progress with eye tracking research methodologies, we will inevitably move on from simply using eye tracking to optimize design and go on to use it as a standard practice when introducing new features, instruments, and everything in between. Having accurate insights into the level of distraction each item in a car causes means a comfortable and smooth experience for the driver. Kazuma Sakamoto, automotive UX specialist at Tobii Pro, echoes this sentiment, saying “we will inevitably reach a point in the future when auto companies trust eye tracking to help them design every aspect of their models with enjoyment, comfort, and safety at the forefront”.

He’s not wrong, in fact, some designers are already well on their way. In a study led by Fang You et al and the Tongji University, driving subjects had their gaze data analyzed while switching lanes in a real-world scenario. The researchers wanted to understand the eye’s “off-road time and awareness of the rearward road scene” so as to inform the future ideal design of an HUD based warning indicator when changing road lanes. The results of the study helped the researchers select the most appropriate positioning of the display and the indicators, minimizing distraction and ensuring their safety system actually boosted safety.

More broadly, many design concepts are expanding off an idea recently explored by car manufacturers around the psychological phenomenon of ‘driving without awareness’ (DWA). DWA describes the act of driving without being conscious of decisions, often characterized by a lack of memory when recounting the events. Questionnaires are understandably limited in their effectiveness when investigating DWA, so automotive UX researchers used eye tracking to better understand how this state can be triggered by situations and external factors. The results also showed that DWA can be considered a moderate risk, and that when combined with other factors such as high speeds or tough conditions, it may have a potentiating effect on accidents. Understanding this, designers can optimize their safety features to more efficiently capture attention as needed while limiting potential distractions that could take attention from the act of driving.

So, from safety to enjoyment, eye tracking research is helping car manufacturers tweak their models to get an edge over the competition. This new data gives designers previously unknown insights, paving the way for cars that break the mold.