Can Low-Tech Drivers Handle High-Tech Cars?

For my Software Safety and Reliability engineering course which I am taking this semester through Stevens Institute of Technology, we were referred to this Wall Street Journal Article:

Can Low-Tech Drivers Handle High-Tech Cars?

Wall Street Journal

Recent Toyota recalls have drawn scrutiny to the company and to the different aspects of their automobile designs.  Some examples are the new keyless ignition systems and computer/software-controlled braking systems.  I thought this articles raised some good questions not just for the automobile industry, but other high-tech consumer products.  As developers and manufacturers are able to produce more high-tech systems, we are approaching the point that the computer/software components are quicker and more advanced than the human operator.  With human-in-the-loop systems such as the automobile, this can have detrimental effects on the system and operator, especially if the capabilities and limitations of the human operators are not considered. 

Developers of common
equipment should consider the potential effect of negative transfer of
training. A common example is simply an American going to drive in
England, or even switching from a manual to automatic transmission
vehicle. I have on several occasions slammed on the brake pedal in an
automatic car thinking it was the clutch after having driven only my
manual vehicle for several weeks. These examples usually don't lead to
severe consequences, but since cars are so ubiquitous and overall very
similar operationally, having major design changes that affect the
operation of the vehicle definitely needs to be weighed against the
potential risks.

Requiring additional driver training is one idea but in the hierarchy of system safety engineering, it is on one of the
bottom rungs, along with, for example, warning placards.  From the
perspective of the auto maker and its subcontractors/suppliers,
incorporating system and software safety into the design is crucial, so
that safety as an emergent property is sufficient to protect driver,
passenger, and other motorists and pedestrians. If there is a concern
about pairing "high-tech vehicles with low-tech drivers" and other "high-tech devices," then the onus
on the front end is for the car developers. Developers need to design
for the operator – the driver is an "univolved" stakeholder. For
safety-critical systems controlled by software, fail-safe and
fail-operational techniques need to be considered, along with redundant
systems in some cases. Taking an example from the article, what if you
turned off a speeding car? If the new ignition system on the car allows
this to happen, then the design must ensure that braking and power
steering are still powered if necessary, potentially through an
auxiliarry power system of some sort or perhaps by architecting those
systems to remain on battery power even if the car is powered off.



  1. That’s an interesting aspect! Thanks for sharing that. Great site Meg! You will be the best astonaut ever!!!!

  2. Thanks Lindsay 🙂
    I think that driver (or end user)input is definitely important for improving existing design aspects and in regard to new technology. One thing I’ve been learning though is that the later in the design and development process that defects or flaws are found, the more expensive they are to fix. So, representative drivers or target end users should be involved early in development, perhaps in prototyping, to try to flush out flaws in the human-machine interface.

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