Black Boxes and Brain Waves Bring New Era in Car Design

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

When the horseless carriage started to gain traction in the early 1900s, there were no rules telling designers how to make a car look or how to lay out the controls. Even the Ford Model T, while incredibly important in the history of the automobile, is driven using a confusing combination of pedals and levers. Looks and layouts have changed over the past 100 years, but other than certain regulations that require basics like lights, steering wheels, and brake pedals, there still aren’t any rules about how a car is supposed to look. Designers know that they need air vents, but where should they go? What should they look like? Decisions like that are largely made based on instinct and designers’ personal tastes.

That’s starting to change though. With competition fierce and profit margins shrinking, finding any advantage over other cars in the segment is becoming more valuable. That means making sure that a car is suited as best as possible to a potential buyer’s wants and desires, and automakers are increasingly turning to technology to figure out how to do just that. Some of those methods, though, are a little out there.

Ford might be the automaker with the most “out there” approach. For the last year-and-a-half, Ford has been working on a project that uses eye tracking software and people’s brain responses to determine the best design for a car’s interior. According to Raj Nair, Ford’s head of global product development, the exterior design is what draws people to a car first, but if they don’t like the interior, it’s one of the top reasons for not buying a car. That means that if a car’s interior design doesn’t connect with potential buyers, Ford stands to lose a lot of money.

To gather this data, Ford has test subjects sit in an all-white version of the car’s interior. Getting rid of colors helps keep the focus on the interior itself. Those subjects, though, have all been hooked up to wires that measure their brains’ reactions, and eye tracking software measures where and how long they focus their attention. The result is actual quantifiable data that tells designers how to make the interior the best that it can be. Ford still intends to use consumer scores of actual pre-production cars in its development process, but early studies like this one give designers the advantage of already having a pretty good idea of what customers are going to like while the car is in its initial design stages.

Source: GM

Ford isn’t the only automaker depending on new analytics to improve its design process. Chevrolet recently announced that the 2016 Malibu had been developed with the help of huge amounts of customer use data collected since 1972. While all automakers subject their pre-production vehicles to rigorous reliability and durability testing, Chevrolet collected data from actual customer vehicles and used it to develop the tests that the 2016 Malibu went through during testing.

Using customer data, even anonymous customer data, might not be quite as “out there” as analyzing brain waves, but it’s certainly more controversial. The subjects in Ford’s tests are there voluntarily and know what data is being collected. The data that went into the development of the Malibu, on the other hand, came from regular customers who likely didn’t know that there was a “black box” in their car, collecting data on how they drove.

It’s not just Chevrolet. These black boxes are in nearly every car on the market. If that raises some privacy concerns for you, you’re far from the only one. “The data collected by the black box has already been the center of litigation by law enforcement agencies and insurance companies seeking to use the information against car owners,” reports the New York Times. Last year, two senators introduced a bill that would limit what data is collected about drivers’ behavior and would require a search warrant before the information could be used in court. Their bill only addressed part of the potential privacy problem though.

Customers want more technology integrated into their cars, and manufacturers are responding to that demand. And offering those new features requires constant data gathering. It may be convenient to be on a road trip and get a lunchtime notification that you’re approaching a Chipotle along your route, but that convenience would also mean that your car would have to constantly monitor your route, where you go, where you stop, and what your preferences are. That data would be incredibly valuable to advertisers, and while automakers promise that they only use that data internally, there are no guarantees.

After all, a statement like, “[W]e don’t supply that data to anyone,” from Ford’s top sales executive Jim Farley rings pretty hollow when it comes on the heels of him saying, “We know everyone who breaks the law. We know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing.”

Hyunda Apple CarPlay
Source: Hyundai

The balance between adding features that improve the driver experience and protecting people’s privacy is a difficult one to master, but taking security and privacy seriously is still important. The first time someone is able to gain access to someone’s driving data and uses it for criminal purposes, it’s going to look really, really bad for that automaker. I’m not sure that hackers finding a way into a car’s stored data to stalk victims is a threat that everybody needs to be actively afraid of, but if it ever happens, you better bet that the PR blowout afterwards will be a nightmare for whichever company made the car that was used.

One step in the right direction would be allowing consumers to control what information is collected and stored about them. The more control that people feel like they have over their own privacy, the more likely they are to be okay with what data is recorded. It would also be a good idea for automakers to be more open about the steps they take to make sure customer data is secure at every point. Consumers deserve to know that their information actually is encrypted and isn’t at risk of being part of a major data leak.

If automakers can take customer privacy and security concerns seriously, allow for customer control of what data is collected, and be open about how they secure the data they do collect, then there’s no reason why we can’t enjoy cars that offer more advanced and convenient features. It would be great for cruise control to be nearly an auto-pilot. It would be great to receive a notification that my favorite brewery has just released a new beer as I’m getting close to a liquor store. It would be great for my car to learn my driving style and adapt its settings to be better suited for what I like.

It’s hard to fault automakers for trying to build and design the best vehicles that they can, and if you look at cars today versus cars from 10 years ago, it’s abundantly clear that today’s cars are a huge improvement. Whether it’s design, quality, features, technology, power, or fuel economy, cars today are better all around. In another 10 years, there’s no doubt that they’ll be even better than they are today. When they are, it will be thanks to automakers like Ford and Chevrolet working to figure out how to best meet their customers’ needs, wants, and desires.

Check out Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook 

Follow Collin on Twitter