Did a usability problem kill Anton Yelchin?
Last Sunday morning actor Anton Yelchin was killed in what appears to be a tragic accident, and one potentially linked to poor design…
THE FACTS ARE this; Anton Yelchin owned a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. He was found crushed between the car and a gate at his home just after exiting his property via the gate. There are no indicators of foul play. The most likely scenario is that the car rolled down a hill and crushed him, after he left it in neutral or at least failed to put the transmission in park.
Anyone can leave a car unsecured on a slope and that’s happened many, many times before since the invention of the automobile; most people would have a story or two to tell. In some cases the parkbrake has not been applied, in other cases it’s been a faulty parkbrake.
What makes this case interesting is the usability of the vehicle in question, as it appears that particular car is designed so that it’s easy to make a mistake when shifting into park.
Modern vehicles are reliant on electronics, which means the conventions of yesteryear can be, and are ignored. Secondary controls are touchscreens, not stalks or buttons. And automatic transmissions have changed too; no longer are they physical levers that move position, but selectors that change electronic options, sometimes even dials.
These changes have been made for several reasons; a smaller lever takes up less space, and electronic selection looks cool and new. Unfortunately, all too often usability takes a back seat. That’s annoying when it’s selecting a radio station, but potentially fatal when it’s a primary vehicle control.
The Grand Cherokee owned by Yelchin was a 2015 model, and it has a known usability problem. To select park, the shifter must be moved forwards from centre, park is selected, then the shifter returns to the centre. The operation is shown in this video:
No car should need a video explaining how to use the basic features of its transmission.
The problem is that it’s too easy to make a mistake and think the car is in park, when it’s not. Fiat Chrysler recognised this and recalled 1.1 million vehicles fitted with the transmissions after 41 known accidents where vehicles were not placed in park, yet there was no functional problem with the car.
The USA’s road safety authority, the NHTSA, collated reports of over 314 incidents which included 121 crashes, 30 of which caused injury, as of 02/03/2016. Their summary in report EA 16-002 was:
“Drivers may exit the vehicle when the engine is running and the transmission is not in Park, resulting in unattended vehicle rollaway. Rollaway incidents may result in serious injuries to the driver or passengers as they exit the vehicle or to other pedestrians in the path of the rolling vehicle.”
And its conclusion:
“NHTSA testing indicates that operation of the Monostable shifter is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”
The problem isn’t human stupidity, it’s just human nature and designs for safety-critical functions need to be human-proof. There is nobody who hasn’t thought they selected something and later found they hadn’t. You shouldn’t die as a result.
This time it’s a Jeep, but it could have been any other car, and it looks very much like an avoidable death. That’s why this accident should be a wake-up call to the car industry. Here’s the two things carmakes need to do, now:
- Standardise controls across all types of vehicle – come up with an industry standard, right now, for everything from indicators, transmission selection operation, parkbrake operation, lighting controls and everything else. Yes, this hampers individual manufacturers. But you know what? Safety is more important. As a journalist, I drive a lot of new cars and very frequently make a lot of mistakes with wipers, lights, shifting up or down manually in automatics and pretty much everything else that’s different from car to car.
- Conduct usability testing – governments need to mandate usability testing, just as they do for crashworthiness. With the increasing complexity of new cars, this is becoming more and more important, and everyone agrees driver distraction is a big factor in road accidents. Inconsistent user interfaces in phones don’t kill people, but they seem to in cars. We’ve argued before than ANCAP should conduct tests of this nature.
If the two actions above aren’t taken, there will be more and more avoidable injuries or deaths due to operator error because carmarkers have put beautiful design ahead of basic safety engineering, and failed to cooperate with each other to design a unified, safe car operation interface.
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