How would drivers' habits change in self-driving cars?

Thursday, January 29, 2015 - 18:56

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- Are you totally focused on driving when you're in the car? Be honest. Are you driving while talking to your kids, using your phone, eating or changing the radio station? … What if your car was self-driving? Would your driving activities or your relationship with your car change?

University of North Texas students worked to find the answers to those questions for Nissan's Research Center in Silicon Valley. The center enlisted the help of Professor Christina Wasson and her design anthropology class to find out how people use their cars.

Eighteen undergraduate and graduate students in Fall 2014 worked with nine study participants to explore "The Social Life of the Car." The students observed participants driving and conducted interviews about their use of cars.

"The development of the technology is moving forward at a rapid pace," said Wasson, a professor of anthropology in the UNT College of Public Affairs and Community Service. "But self-driving cars won't be a success unless people feel comfortable using them. By investigating how people are currently using their cars, our study identified implications for how self-driving cars can be designed to promote their adoption by the consumers of tomorrow."

Students conducted preliminary interviews with participants to gather basic information and get a tour of the cars, and then they rode with the participants and observed the participants' behaviors. They also conducted post-driving interviews to determine how participants use the car, what the car means to them and how it is embedded in their relationships.

"People are amazing multitaskers in the car," Wasson says. "They are doing so many things at once -- talking on the cell phone, checking the dashboard, monitoring the road, talking to passengers, eating, changing music. We documented all of these amazing layers of activity with the idea that the activities will only increase as drivers have to spend less and less time focused on the road."

Brigitte Jordan, a corporate anthropologist at the Nissan Research Center, believes that the most significant contribution of the project may be the fact that student researchers collected data on how people actually drive, a topic of high significance for the design of the car of the future.

"Engineers, computer scientists and roboticists who work on designing these cars know a lot about the technical aspects of Human Machine Interaction," Jordan said. "But they know almost nothing about the experience of drivers and passengers, though that is what they ultimately have to design for. For example, we found that drivers transform the 'space' around them by converting it into a 'place' that they own and are intimately familiar with. We also found that many of the familiar gestures of normal face-to-face interaction are modified in in-car communication, such that, for example, eye contact is indicated by a slight turn of the head but not actually carried out."

Their work will benefit the industry as well as UNT students.

Little ethnographic research exists on driving behavior, making the students' research a significant contribution to the subject, Wasson said. Plus, students get hands-on experience that prepares them for careers as business anthropologists, she said.

"Companies are interested in the insights anthropologists can bring into how people are using their products," Wasson said. "This is exactly the kind of career that a lot of our students are interested in having. After this course, students have a much better understanding of what it's like to work for a client on a project like this and engage in interdisciplinary collaboration."

The project is one of many in which Wasson's classes have been involved over the years. Previous classes have conducted projects for Microsoft, Motorola and the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

"More often than not, I hear young scholars in the field talk about graduate programs that failed to provide real world experience," said student Heather Roth. "Our project with the Nissan lab was refreshing because we, as anthropology students, had to collaborate with the design students in the class and work with Dr. Brigitte Jordan from the lab. You learn that difficulties can arise during the research process with so many people working together, but overcoming them is a skill only gained through practice."

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