team with trucks
(l-r) Me, a semi-truck driver at Indy and Leslie taking notes.

Safer Self-driving Semi-Trucks

Anticipating and designing for the safety problems which will arise as self-driving trucks become commonplace in 2025.

I was fortunate to learn from and work with Nicole Anicetti, Hayden Mills and Leslie Huang in this project. I was responsible for user research, ideating, sketching, prototyping, documentation and planning the presentation.


Understanding

post it prompt
The initial prompt for this project was a post-it note
How can we design for pushback and liability issues like safety, trust, control, efficiency and cybersecurity related to autonomous vehicles manufactured by Mercedes Benz?

We decided to explore autonomous semi-trucks by Mercedes designed for 2025 and design for the issues mentioned above.

This project required us to envision a future where vehicles can drive by itself in 2025. But what changes will this bring and new problems would arise? We went out and tried to understand more about the trucking industry and truck drivers by talking to 4 truck drivers at a truck stop near Indy and a business in Bloomington, Indiana.

Nicole and Hayden
Nicole and Hayden talk to a semi-truck retailer
Dipt talking to a driver
I had the opportunity to learn from Mike
leslie and dipt with bob
Leslie and I discuss transport and semi-trucks

The trucking industry is over a $700 billion dollar industry in America. 90% of truck drivers are owner-operators. A autonomous semi-truck would surpass anything on the market because it allows drivers to rest and not worry about the driving hours limit of 11 hours. There is a significant shortage of drivers in the industry as well.

Insights

  • 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.
How do we alert the driver when they are needed to take control in situations where autopilot cannot navigate?

Ideation

We sketched out ideas which would be technologically feasible in 2025 and would alert the driver when he is needed. We assumed that the interior of a semi-truck would look the image below and would have a bed on which the driver can take a nap while the semi-truck drives itself.

 Sketches
A typical cabin of a semi-truck
sketching
A light moment after group-sketching

We explored diffrent avenues of alerting mechanisms like tactile feedback, audio, lighting, temperature, wearables. We also discussed about how the driver gets the right message from the alert.

Leslie Sketches
Rotating chairs and lights
Bathroom mirror
Looking at foot pedals, chairs and wearables
Sketches
Exploring a speaker similar to the Amazon Echo
We did not design how the driver takes control from the auto-pilot or how an instant collision could be avoided.

Testing

This was the first time we were usability testing an experience. We tested our prototype with 5 participants. We simulated a semi-truck cabin by using a large screen as the windshield, a frisbee as the wheel and a two chairs representing the drinving and resting area. We tested out male and female voices in varying intensities and pitches and observed the reactions of the participants.

 Sketches
Simulation of a cabin for the test
sketching
Asking questions after the usability test

Solution

We sketched out the story on paper and made sure that all of us were on the same page about the idea. Three critical components of the alerting system are described below.

final sketch1
Audio and lights are used to alert the driver 40 mins before he is needed.
final sketch2
Sensors around the cabin detect if the driver is awake and moving towards driving or not.
final sketch3
The auto-pilot pulls over and notifies authorities if the driver doesn't wake up.

Final Design

Below is a video illustrating two scenarios when the alerting system is required. We use our primary persona, Frank to tell the story about the alerting system and how it works.

The video above was compiled by Hayden and Nicole's voice was used for the audio component.

Reflection

This project was the fourth project of our Interaction Design Practice course. Compared to the projects we had done earlier, this project challenged us tremendously. With such an open-ended prompt and infinite possibilities, decisiveness was key in this project. We made mistakes, but were quick to learn from them and course corrected ourselves. We did an excellent job of not trying to boil the ocean. We went out of our comfort zones by selecting semi-trucks as our focus. The best moment for me in this project was being scared of talking to truck-drivers about autonomous trucks and then being able to confront that. It helped me understand so much about what a truck-driver does and goes through.

Our Journey. Full image here
Journey

team
(l-r) Me, Leslie, Hayden and Nicole