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"This noxious story highlights the car industry's obsession with technology instead of humans"

Opinion: the Volkswagen emissions scandal has exposed how the car industry's obsession with data is preventing it from designing for real people, says Luis Cilimingras of design consultancy IDEO.


As Google, Tesla, Audi, Volvo, General Motors and others hurry to develop driverless cars, it's worth remembering – for the moment at least – that people still drive cars.

Whether it's the thrill of sitting behind the wheel of a sleek sports car, the pang of guilt about the environmental impact of driving, or the boredom of the daily commute, we all know how feelings can influence how we drive.

But as the Volkswagen emissions scandal continues to unfold, you'd be forgiven for thinking the car industry didn't know that. This noxious story has highlighted the industry's obsession with optimising technology to deliver against tests and regulations, instead of trying to understand real driving by real humans in real life, where their cars are actually supposed to deliver their potential.

If you have ever bought a car, you know that official fuel consumption figures are a myth, an impossible, unattainable number in the weird world of real-life driving.

The resulting damage isn't limited to the hermetically sealed test bench, though. It's real harm done to the environment, and people's health, along with Volkswagen's sales – down 20 per cent in the UK alone – and the industry's reputation as a whole.

In some ways, it's easy to see why this has happened. The squishy, ephemeral, emotional bit of being human can seem difficult or controversial to measure, so we often judge and regulate how well a technology performs by technical considerations, rather than human ones. But that's flawed, and misses the fundamental drive that underpins great design; aligning people and things to work together for optimal performance.

TV ratings are calculated on actual viewership, and elections on votes. So why are we still attributing tax bands and fines to vehicles and manufacturers based on their test-bench results, and what's stopping the industry measuring real driving?

Developments in real-time data capture challenge that assumption. Broadly, it's becoming easier to know what's happening in a car, and around it. From 2018 all new cars will be connected via a service called eCall to automatically report accidents. We could also start reporting fuel consumption too: with enough data, it wouldn't be dependent on the conditions of individual trips, and we could rapidly compare makes and models.

The dashboard, cockpit, gearbox or user interface, the design of a car's exterior and interior, and driving context all might have impact on how a car performs, and the response of the driver. So, why shouldn't we capture driving outcomes and gauge how intangible variables like aesthetics, emotion, user experience, and interface design affect them? By not measuring their impact, they're removed from the engineer and designer's attention.

Before joining IDEO, I worked at Fiat for 10 years, and as head of digital innovation led the development of Fiat's eco:Drive initiative. Eco:Drive is a bit of technology that presents the vehicle's telemetric data back to drivers in the form of easy tips to drive more efficiently. By factoring live fuel prices against the engine's efficiency curve, we were able to show drivers how their speed affected fuel cost, for example. To understand its impact we measured over 400,000 drives, and the result was a fuel consumption reduction of up to 16 per cent.

It was the first time drivers had been asked to participate in making their car even better. As a result of the project, drivers became more engaged with their vehicles. It made them not only more frugal, but also safer.

Beyond the automotive sector, the power of bringing real-world data to design in order to improve outcomes applies to many industries. Another example of design that cares for people at the centre of complex systems is delivered by uMotif, a digital health startup we incubated in our London studio.

Their app complements clinical data provided by the care teams with real-time, subjective tracking of symptoms and feelings by patients recovering from a hospital episode. Feelings define our sense of quality of life and also drive people into hospital, so there's no reason why they shouldn't be at the centre of healthcare.

Let's extrapolate the approach. Why shouldn't we start measuring real-life learning instead of testing education if we want to reduce unemployment; quality of life if we want to improve healthcare; happiness if we want to improve policy making? Technology should be at the service of making the best out of people, not making us feel redundant.

Of course, real life is a complicated system. In the case of cars, for example, that includes the vehicle, the driver, the road, fellow road users, cultural context, the city, and laws. So, instead of designing for the artificial, isolated bubble of the test bench, we should design technology and legislation to align the interests and responsibilities of everyone in that system for the safest, healthiest, cleanest outcomes.

Capable Volkswagen engineers dedicated their time to programming a vehicle's computer to optimise performance under test conditions. How far might their effort, and that of designers, engineers and thinkers across many other industries take us if applied to the real world?


Luis Cilimingras is managing director of design and innovation company IDEO's London studio.