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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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Richard Green
Richard Green
4 years ago

Ha Practical Motoring you should ask about the mechanical “self adjusting” hand brakes on the Chrysler’s JK Wranglers and it’s death wobble issues too: it is absolutely amazing they can get away with such ineffective and dangerous designs and claim there isn’t a problem.

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  Richard Green

Yes well aware of the death wobble and the brakes! Fortunately, there are good aftermarket fixes.

trackdaze
trackdaze
4 years ago

It can happen to the best of us. Though in different circumstances the late malcom douglas died pinned between a tree and a vehicle. This from the bloke who said when you get stuck,have a cup of tea before effecting a recovery.

Though I would think a more absolute mechanism would assist I can’t help but think the same sensor that bing bongs when some one is in the drivers seat without a seatbealt could be used to ensure a can isn’t in drive,reverse or neutral without someone in the seat. At worst neutral might need an overide button for towing.

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  trackdaze

At least one person recognises it’s a car problem! Plenty saying it’d never happen to them.

trackdaze
trackdaze
4 years ago
Reply to  Robert Pepper

I’ve seen complacency cause “accidents” plenty

LD
LD
4 years ago
Reply to  trackdaze

‘same sensor that bing bongs when….’ There is. If you exit the vehicle if it is not in Park, chimes and warning bells go off. If you choose to ignore them, who’s fault is that?

trackdaze
trackdaze
4 years ago
Reply to  LD

The concept of contributory negligence will work out degrees of fault in these matterss. Say for instance that bing bong is not dissimilar from one that chimes away when the motors running and a seatbelts not fastened or….would be jumped on by the plaintiff .get my drift.

This is something that could be sorted with an hours worth of programing and a days worth of testing and ten cents of wire.

GoGRM
GoGRM
4 years ago

Not to mention with all these different electronic controls when they breakdown it is near impossible to get the park brake off and select natural as the electronics are preventing this from happening. Yes there is emergency release but every car is in a different spot and some require you to pull the dash or center console apart to find and find them and that is after you spend 20 minutes reading the users manual to find the location (if they have one in the car).
Cars have just become to technologically advanced and we need to go back to cars that are meant for driving and not phone connectivity and the 50 million other gadgets they put in them.
I am a youngish bloke (mid 30s) and when looking for a new car I try to find one that is simple to use and comfortable and only needs power windows, power steering, cruise control, air conditioning, Bluetooth and some USB ports for charging and that is it. I can tell you that is becoming hard to find just that list in new cars today.

Andrew Riles
Andrew Riles
4 years ago
Reply to  GoGRM

Agreed…..I think we are going backwards in terms of usability as car makers cram more and more features into each new model…..sometimes it appears to be change for the sake of change too…..

I’m of similar age to you, and have enough trouble at times operating a touchscreen while stationary, yet carmakers expect us to be able to do it while driving……and don’t get me started on cars that beep at you incessantly…..

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Riles

Touchscreens are NOT good for user friendliness or driver distraction. Buttons and levers are better, but more expensive.

Simon Rooke
Simon Rooke
4 years ago

Great that usability issues (particularly when they have an effect on safety) are being highlighted. A few I’ve come across…
– Audi A4 (B8): Changing the fan speed requires the press of a button first, then the turn of a dial. Not exactly progress…
– Holden Commodore (VF): Brake pedal closer to the driver than accelerator, so you have to lift your foot back towards you before you can brake.
– Most current automatic BMWs: That joystick thing for controlling the gearbox is certainly not readily understood by someone not familiar with it (although at least it’s probably not actually dangerous like the Jeep one).

Diva_D
Diva_D
4 years ago
Reply to  Simon Rooke

Your comment about the Commodore makes no sense. The only vehicles I have ever come across that have equal pedals are trucks, and even then only floor mounted pedals.

Simon Rooke
Simon Rooke
4 years ago
Reply to  Diva_D

I will try and elaborate.. The resting position of the brake pedal in the Commodore is noticeably closer to the driver than the resting position of the accelerator, compared to other vehicles I have driven. The first time I drove one (a rented SV6) the arrangement took some getting used to and it struck me as being a needless impediment to safe operation of what was otherwise an enjoyable and capable car.

Andrew Riles
Andrew Riles
4 years ago

Robert, the articles I have read on this make no mention of the handbrake on the GC, and the lever or button for it wasn’t obvious in the photos…..can you expand on this at all??

Robert Pepper
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Riles

It’s a foot-operated parkbrake. Anecdotal evidence is that these are not used as frequently as hand operated parkbrakes.

Andrew Riles
Andrew Riles
4 years ago
Reply to  Robert Pepper

Cheers…..though I am surprised its not an electronic one…..

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper