Designed the In-Cab Alerting System for Year 2025 Semi-Autonomous Semi-Truck
Team Members: Hayden Mills, Dipt Chaudhary, Nicole Anicetti
Role: User Researcher. Ideator. Usability Tester. Presenter. Visualizer.
Duration: 3 Weeks
What We Designed...
How to ALERT drivers when they were needed to take control of the vehicle from auto-pilot?
Our alerting system including audio component informing the time in which the driver will be required. It also including lights on the ceiling which illuminate during an alert. The system has movement sensors which can detect the status of the driver and can interpret if the alerts need to stop or not.
What We Did Not Design...
We did not design how the driver takes control from the auto-pilot or how an instant collision could be avoided.
Why We Choose a Semi-Autonomous Semi-Truck to Focus on?
It became apparent early on that we needed to make quick team decisions on what Mercedes Benz vehicle and autonomous problem we wanted to tackle. We did research online and discovered that Mercedes Benz manufacturers all kinds of different vehicles. This gave us a lot of options to choose from.
We wrote out the list of vehicles on a whiteboard and, after a bit of back and forth, decided to focus on semi-trucks. We discovered that Mercedes Benz had already designed and developed an autonomous “semi-truck of the future” for 2025. After exploring what fully autonomous trucks with no drivers would look like, we decided it would be best to use the context of 2025 and the Mercedes Benz semi-truck of the future as our focus for the project.
Throughout the project, we got out of studio, hit the road and met the truck drivers and companies behind the $700 billion dollar trucking industry in America. We spent a lot of our time during the project talking to people involved in the trucking industry. Our goal was to soak up as much information as we could about the people and companies who move goods across the country everyday.
- Extensively interviewed people who drive, ride or related with vehicles about autonomous truck
- Interviewed and talked to truck drivers in drivers lounge of truck stop
- Talked to truck drivers outside of truck repair shop
- Visited semi-truck retailer
- Interviewed and conducted user test with a water and related equipment company
Here are insights from our research:
Trust in technology - People find massive self driving semi-trucks more intimidating than similar self-driving smaller vehicles and complete trust will take time.
Efficiency/Safety tradeoff - Safer procedures and protocols are often bypassed as drivers and companies both try to squeeze maximum efficiency.
Pre-trip Complexity - The initial process of every trip is a complex one, consisting of a lot of paperwork, inspections and also occasional training.
Communication - Companies are only concerned with items reaching the destination. So all semi-trucks are tracked by the Department of Transport. Companies only track the goods.
We explored many different areas in regards to semi-trucks and autonomous vehicles during ideation process. We would explore a certain idea that we had only to realize that it wasn’t the right direction for us to head in after conversations with experts in the industry, sketching sessions, and doing research online.
- Fully autonomous vs. Semi-autonomous
Early on in the project we explored what the world would look like for a fully autonomous semi-truck that would navigate the roads without any drivers in the cab. However, it became clear to us through our research that semi-trucks will be one of the last vehicles to drive completely autonomous due to the amount of work and responsibility that truck drivers do besides driving the truck on the road. We decided if would be beneficial to focus on semi-autonomous trucks and design in the context of 2025 and the Mercedes Benz truck of the future.
We then began to focus on one of the main problems we heard a lot while talking to drivers. Truck inspections take forever! Inspection is also one of their major duty besides driving. Drivers are required by the DOT to do safety inspections of their truck and load before driving each load, every morning and every night. Our goal by exploring truck inspections was to see if we could find a way to make the process of inspecting the truck easier before you go out on the road. We ideated how we could automate this process. However, we eventually discovered there were already technologies trying to automate this time consuming process by adding sensors all over the truck.
- Transfer the control between driver and autonomous function
We shifted our focus towards the safety issues involved with a semi-truck that can drive autonomously in optimal road conditions yet still needs a human when exiting the highway or in rough weather and road conditions (snow, heavy rain, construction, etc).
Here are some initial sketches, we discussed using light, sound, driver seat vibration and information board to inform that driver is needed. And what is the information and data they need after taking controls. We decided even constrained down to design "how to inform drivers from break" rather than providing data before taking controls or the process of transfer the control.
We showed our sketch to HD Supply, we decided to create a more realistic prototype to test our idea. We "built" a classroom as our driver cabin based on the storyline we sketched out earlier. During prototyping, we recorded the audio that use for alerting drivers.
We recorded 8 different alert in different tones and even in different language to test on our uses. To be consistent we used an alert notification that severe weather was approaching and the driver was needed to take control of the wheel.
We used the room that has brightness gradually changeable light, and the location of the room could get a consistent and random flow of people coming by. We were able to get six people to test our prototype.
We tried to understand following questions after testing our idea:
- How would the user hear the voice alert and understand what it said?
- Would the lights and audio in the cab be enough to grab their attention?
- How fast would they react to the alert and move back to the drivers seat?
Here are some insight we found from test:
- It’s important to keep voice alerts simple and straight to the point
- The volume of the alert matters
- Users typically have a voice alert preference (male vs female)
- Differing voice tones were interpreted as either emotional or authoritative depending on the gender of the voice
- Multiple alarms at decreasing intervals are more effective than one alarm
- Lights can be effective at grabbing the users attention however too many lights flickering is unnecessary
We also did a second round of usability test based on this version of sketch. This time we talked to semi-truck driver and transportation manager in HD Supply. Based on the test, we iterated some minor problems, and we built our final design.
- Weather Tracker
The onboard system constantly tracks the weather ahead on the route while Highway Pilot is engaged. This allows the driver to have peace of mind that the system will alert him/her if their assistance is needed.
- Heat Map Sensor
Heat map sensors allows the system to determine whether or not the driver has moved since the alerts have started going off. If the sensors determine that the driver is still unresponsive the frequency and sound level of the alerts continue to increase.
Safety pullover spots
The function will be used when driver is not response to system.