Dan Formosa, PhD
Design Research & Strategy, Smart Design

Courtesy of Design For All Newsletter May 2008, Vol-3, No-5, a publication of Design for All Institute of India.


A moving car is a constant risk. Very young drivers and older drivers are not as good as middle-aged drivers in avoiding crashes. The reason - automobiles, automobile electronics, and highways are designed for "average" drivers, not the extremes of the driving population.

Driving an automobile is a skill. A driver's main objective, even more important than arriving at a destination, is to get there without crashing. Driving is a task of continuous crash avoidance. Accomplishing this requires constant attention to the road ahead. A driver's attention is easily diverted with any number of in-vehicle activities. Complex electronics currently found in automobiles can significantly contribute to the problem.

In a quest to reduce accidents, injuries and deaths, this paper discusses designers' responsibility in designing automobiles and automobile interiors, and opportunities for using design to explore effective, high performance solutions.

In a quantitative study on younger and older drivers, we compared the skills of drivers ranging from 20-40 years of age with those of drivers 60-80 years of age. While all drivers had difficulty maintaining control of the vehicle when performing common in-vehicle tasks in our driving simulator, older drivers "crashed" more often. The results show that instrument panels need to be redesigned for everyone.

The results of this study point to design opportunities that will improve the performance of all drivers. On a wider scale, the study demonstrates that design teams can and should explore the limits of design and human performance in an effort to help reduce accidents. The results will be beneficial for drivers and for automobile manufacturers. In this study, universal design means optimizing human performance for everyone.

To explore the limits of design and be truly innovative, designers need to devise and conduct their own research. Automobile companies have an enormous opportunity to develop cool, innovative new instrument panels and interiors that embrace the concept of "design for all." Approached correctly, this will lead to innovation, improved safety, increased sales and more interesting vehicles.

Introduction: Older drivers and crashes

The average age of a Porsche 911 buyer in the United States is 52 years - two years older than the age qualifying for membership in AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons). Drivers 50 years and older buy 50 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States - sports cars included. Older drivers may have different physical needs and abilities - but not necessarily different attitudes from other age groups about what is fun, cool, or "for them".

Design can have a dramatic influence on our behavior. It affects us on a personal level and on social and cultural levels. A designed product, system or environment can affect us day-by-day, week-by-week, and ultimately have a significant effect on our lives. Design also reflects our concerns and compassion for each other.

Vehicle designers and manufacturers need to incorporate "social responsibility" into their design mission. The awareness of this responsibility, and the significant role designers and manufacturers play in defining our environment, is growing. This paper discusses a specific aspect of vehicle design - instrument panel design. In a larger scope, it calls for increased attention to the needs and desires of older drivers, and for designers to embrace and respond to this issue.

A 2006 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute entitled "The Impact of Driver Inattention on Near Crash / Crash Risk," looked at actual driving performance. Researchers in the study monitored 241 drivers in 100 vehicles in the US over the course of one year. Their goal was to understand the prevalence and the consequences of driver inattention on crashes and "near crashes." The researchers found that drivers performing non-driving-related visual tasks, manual tasks, or both, while driving, increased their risk of a crash by three times (Klauer et. al., 2006).

Dr. Charlie Klauer was a researcher in the study. According to her, "...the proliferation of technologies in the vehicle has just exacerbated the amount of time that drivers are distracted." Among the in-vehicle activities that contributed to risk were the use of mobile phones and reaches within the vehicle. Any amount of "look away" time, when eyes are not directly on the road ahead, created a risk.

If design is a powerful force, then designers should be able to harness that power and strive, along with those in other fields, to make automobiles more humane and less dangerous. While this issue has always been important, it is now urgent. The number of older drivers is increasing rapidly. Baby boomers in the United States, who were radical rights activists and sympathizers in the 1960s, are unlikely to give up their right to drive in the 2000s. To do so would mean giving up their independence. In the United States, viable alternatives to personal transportation do not exist for a huge portion of the population. A crisis is looming, and it will be interesting to see if car designers, a group not historically known for addressing social responsibility in design, rise to the challenge.

Instrument panels and the road ahead

Drivers need to constantly monitor the road ahead. A driver who glances away from forward view for more than 1.0 second is putting himself or herself, the passengers, and anyone nearby, at risk. In a moving car, drivers' glance times away from forward view typically last 0.6 to 1.0 seconds (Wierwille, 1993). They rarely last more then 1.6 seconds. Risk increases rapidly within this short time frame. A look away of 2.0 seconds, as reported by the "Driver Inattention" study mentioned above, puts drivers in serious risk.

Driving an automobile can be more demanding than the "piloting" of other vehicles. Airplane pilots, for instance, can take longer glance times away from forward view, as can boat operators or ship captains. These environments provide a better forecast of what lies ahead in the immediate future. For an automobile moving down a road, things can occur much more suddenly. The automobile lane requires more vigilance than does a flight path or a boating lane. Other cars, motorcycles, pedestrians or obstacles can appear instantly.

In an automobile, monitoring the path ahead is purely a human act. Several actions take place when a driver looks away from forward view. Eyes must search for the new target (a temperature control, for instance). Eyes must also adapt to light and adjust focus. Then there is the time taken to manipulate the control (setting a temperature to a specific numeric level, such as 25° C). Decision time can be an added factor. Eyes must then return to forward view, refocus and readapt to the light. All this takes place typically within one second. This is a challenge for all drivers. It is especially a challenge for older drivers, whose physiological processes such as change in focus and light adaptation are, on average, slower when compared to younger or middle-aged drivers.

In a moving automobile, any in-vehicle task that requires visual attention competes with the driver's forward view, increasing risk. Close to 80% of crashes, and 65% of near crashes, occur within three seconds of a driver's inattention, or distraction from monitoring the road ahead.

Exploring instrument panel design

"Younger and Older Drivers' Performance and Innovation in Design", a study conducted with New York University and with the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, investigated the timing and accuracy of in-vehicle reaches to the instrument panel, glance times, and the effect on steering accuracy.

The goal of the study was to assess current design solutions in instrument panels. The study considered drivers' abilities to actuate instrument panel buttons while looking at the road ahead and maintaining control of the vehicle. An array of 23 positions on the instrument panel was presented, with targets positioned where manual controls such as audio controls and heating and ventilation controls are typically located. Drivers were asked to reach for these targets, after first locating the targets by touch (by first feeling for the target, then reaching again to retouch that target without looking) or by sight (by first glancing at the target, then reaching again to retouch that target without looking).

This study was conducted with 48 younger and older, male and female drivers. The younger group consisted of drivers 20 to 40 years of age. The older group consisted of drivers 60 to 80 years of age. Both age groups demonstrated difficulties reaching accurately.

The results quantified drivers' abilities to accurately reach while steering and also measured steering control. The loss of steering accuracy under conditions of reach and look away confirmed some of the study's original hypotheses. Other results were surprising, adding insight to exactly how instrument panel controls should be designed and arranged to improve driving performance.

For example, proven hypotheses include the fact that, consistently, every reach to an instrument panel target resulted in some loss of control in steering. This affected both younger and older drivers, although older drivers' steering performance proved to be more adversely affected.

Surprises include the finding that reaches closest to and furthest from the steering wheel are most accurate. Reaches to in-between areas, where most instrument panel controls are typically located, exhibit less accuracy. This finding was later attributed to biomechanical factors. Proprioceptors, sensors in the arm that detect and signal back to the brain the positions of the arm and hand, appeared to be more accurate at closer, flexed arm positions, and at further, more extended positions. At intermediate positions, which would correspond to reaches in the middle areas of the instrument panel, drivers were less accurate.

Fig. 1 Accuracy of reaches to the instrument panel

This diagram explains the charts that follow. The intended targets (a push button, for instance) were positioned at the intersections of the grid. Actual reaches, on average, were low and to the right. Ninety percent of the actual reaches to the target occurred within the ellipse.

Younger drivers Older drivers

Fig. 2 Comparison of reach accuracy of younger and older drivers

Twenty-three intended targets were positioned at the intersections of the grid lines shown here. A steering wheel is shown for reference. Smaller ellipses indicate more accurate reaches. Reaches to the instrument panel were inaccurate for both age groups, and tended to skew low and to the right. Reaches made by older drivers were less accurate than reaches made by younger drivers (indicated by the larger ellipses). The study was conducted using left side steering wheels, as standard in the US. Each driver reached with his or her right hand.

Other surprises in the study include the fact that older drivers made slightly faster reach movements. As later reported by some participants, this was to more quickly return that hand to the steering wheel. Because older drivers' steering was more adversely affected when reaching, they compensated by reaching faster. This strategy did not work, since the reaches were less accurate. Also, consistently for all 23-target locations, reaches tended to be below and to the right of the actual target location, meaning drivers on average reach too low and too far when accessing a control without looking.

These and other findings from this design-centered study in driving performance point to several innovative, non-typical design solutions. Considering the fact that instrument panels should not be alien to drivers, the solutions being generated as a result of this study will need to be innovative while remaining intuitive. Results from the study are leading to a range of innovative design solutions. Simple solutions include provision of tactile cues to guide the hand, and of course, controls that are sized and shaped appropriately. More radical solutions entail rethinking the entire three-dimensional instrument panel configuration.

Evolution in vehicle design

Design teams are only beginning to embrace the idea that design research is critical to the evolution of vehicle design. Consumers in the US are telling us that they are becoming less impressed with brands, technology, or even visual aspects of design. In their minds, design is no longer just about visual aspects of a product - it is about the experience of owning and using a product. The experience includes all aspects of performance. Products need to adapt to people - even, when possible, predicting people's abilities, instantaneous needs, and behaviors.

Automobile designers have a particular mission and need to adhere to an altruistic point of view. They need to embrace the fact that they have a responsibility to accelerate the influence of design, applying new insights to vehicle interiors. This is urgently needed for drivers in all age groups, but is especially urgent in view of the coming wave of older Baby Boomer drivers, who will demand that companies adapt, and that inattentive companies(and designers) step aside in favor of those who seriously know how to meet their evolving needs and desires.

Some design teams are responding. Industrial designers at Ford, for instance, are looking directly at human performance and instrument panel design. They have developed tools such as the Programmable Vehicle Model, providing them with a method to fluidly explore various design configurations and respond directly to user needs.

Ford gained attention in 1999 with the Third Age Suit, developed with the University of Loughborough. Worn by physically healthy designers, the suit simulates physical difficulties experienced by many people, including difficulties especially common to older drivers. Ford's design team is taking a point of view that these explorations are by no means limiting - they, in fact, will lead to innovations that otherwise would have never surfaced.

As far as automobile interiors and vehicle performance are concerned, automobile design suffers from the lack of a "champion" - a prominent person taking a lead role on this topic as it relates to design. This is in stark contrast to product categories such as office furniture, or computer equipment, where usability is a primary goal, and experts - either well-known individuals or entire companies - serve as proponents of altruistic goals and as role models.


Automobile safety has improved significantly in recent years. The improvements, however, have almost exclusively been the result of improvements in engineering and in driver behavior, as concern over driving safety increases. This is as opposed to improvements from the field of industrial design. While design teams may implement improvements conceived by experts from other fields, there exists more opportunity to create designs that will result in improved driving performance and vehicle safety.

For example, it is difficult to explain why, in the face of overwhelming evidence that in-vehicle tasks are responsible for accidents, instrument panel designs continue to consist of small black-on-black controls. These controls are difficult to discern through touch alone, and often incorporate electronic displays that demand more visual attention than necessary. Some displays, in fact, even compete for attention, distracting drivers with information not crucial to the driving task.

The Audi A6, for example, incorporates an instrument panel with a large screen that includes, among other things, the audio system controls. Its electronic interface makes it necessary to look at the display in order to perform the same task -changing a radio station for instance - that in the 1950's (and earlier) could easily be performed through touch. Audi's screen displays a warning message when started, instructing drivers not to look at the display while driving. This is hardly a solution. Audi is not alone in this way of thinking.

This approach inappropriately imposes technology simply because that technology exists, in disregard of the driver's safety and the need to constantly monitor forward view. Technology, appropriately applied, should be helping us, not hurting.


As Baby Boomers in the US travel into this century, they will continue to demand their rights and will continue to be unlike any previous generation. With enough disposable income to purchase and drive new sports cars, sport utility vehicles, innovative alternate energy vehicles, motorcycles and whatever else comes onto the market, the vehicles appropriately designed for this cohort will not be boring.

It is unclear at this point how many vehicle manufactures will "get it." The saying goes that "innovation comes from weak signals." Recent sales figures show that vehicles intended specifically for younger drivers - the Honda Element and Toyota Scion for example - are attracting a much older crowd. If the thought is that maybe these cars are not "young" enough, then that thought misses the point. Age is much less of a factor than ever before.

Older drivers are a diverse group, and are looking for innovative products that meet their needs. One of the needs is "fun." Older consumers, in our experience, are willing and able to pay more for innovative design - because they have the ability to buy, and because, even more important, they appreciate design more. The design, however, needs to be both innovative and meaningful. Baby Boomers are a savvy group; better educated, more demanding, and more aware than any previous generation. And from their experience in the 1960's, they are not readily trusting of large corporations.

Vehicle designers need to passionately embrace this fact. Design innovations must emanate from the design team, and they will only be truly meaningful to consumers if design teams apply their powers to understand the needs, abilities and desires of all drivers.


Several people added their insight to inspire or support many of the points mentioned in this paper. Thanks to Nick Twork at Ford for reporting their new developments in design methodologies - at least those that he was allowed to discuss. Jason Rothkop at Lear, a manufacturer of instrument panel components, is in full agreement with the need for increased social responsibility among automobile designers. He pointed out that, in the field of automobile interior design, there is no single person acting as champion to solve the "usability" problem, as you may find in other types of products.


Formosa, D. (2000): Automobile Instrument Panel Design: Reach Capabilities of Younger and Older Drivers. Doctorate thesis at New York University.

Klauer, S.G., Dingus, T. A., Neale, V. L., Sudweeks, J.D., and Ramsey, D.J. (2006): "The Impact of Driver Inattention On Near Crash/Crash Risk: An Analysis Using the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study Data," Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, Blacksburg, Virginia and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Wierwille, W.W. (1993): Visual and Manual Demands of Incar Controls and Displays. Automotive Ergonomics, Taylor & Francis (299320).

Roe, R.W. (1993): Occupant Packaging. Automotive Ergonomics, Taylor & Francis, 299320.

Dan Formosa, PhD
Design Research & Strategy
Smart Design
New York - San Francisco - Barcelona

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