Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Car Ergonomics Work


Placement of Vehicle Controls
Using cell phones and fiddling with navigation systems while driving is a growing concern for both lawmakers and transportation officials.
Using cell phones and fiddling with navigation systems while driving is a growing concern for both lawmakers and transportation officials.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Vehicle controls constitute an essential part of ergonomics. From cars with push-button ignitions -- like many Toyota models, notably the Prius -- to power seats, automatic headlights, automatic climate control and electronic parking brakes, the latest in ergonomic innovation is often characterized by automation and ease of use. These features are, notably, easier for disabled drivers to use and allow many drivers to simply set a goal, such as a desired temperature of 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius), and the car does the rest.

One of the more intriguing trends in ergonomic design is the attention now paid to older drivers. All types of cars -- including sports cars -- are now being designed to have controls with larger text and better lighting to maximize readability, particularly for older or functionally disabled drivers. Even door handles are being made to allow a better grip for people with conditions like arthritis.

To design controls suitable for older or even for pregnant drivers, some auto engineers put on suits that limit their mobility and range of vision or that come with a large belly, mimicking pregnancy. Elaborate bodysuits won't always do, so engineers do often turn to virtual reality and computer modeling. This flexibility means that an engineer can easily test how a certain control configuration might be used by a 6-foot, 200-pound man or a 5-foot, 120-pound. woman -- and everyone in between. These programs also allow for testing for people with disabilities, unusual body types or special needs.

With new features, however, come new challenges. Distracted driving is a major concern, leading many U.S. states to pass laws regulating drivers' cell phone use. At the same time, more cars are coming equipped with integrated hands-free phone systems, often incorporating Bluetooth. But the challenge then arises of how to make this system accessible and easy to use without distracting drivers or requiring them to take their eyes off the road. There's some speculation that future cars will need to rely more on audio/voice controls, a feature that exists to a limited extent in some vehicles [source: Autoweb].


More to Explore