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The role, potential, and future of HMI

What HMI is

The term “Human-Machine Interface” (HMI) also refers to “man–machine interface” (MMI) and sometimes “human–computer interface” (HCI). “HMI” supplants the more sexist “MMI”, and “HCI” refers more to human interaction with actual computers, such as laptops and personal computers (PC). To understand the full import of HMI, explaining some historical perspective is necessary. As generally applied, the HMI has been around since the time when machines were invented, the underlying thinking being how to make the human use of the machine more efficient. To appreciate the importance of the HMI, we can think of Hero’s (of Alexandria, Egypt – c. 10–70 C.E.) primitive steam toy, where jet nozzles mounted in opposite directions on arms protruding from a sphere were powered by steam fed by an entrance tube to a rod placed between two vertical supports, causing the whole assembly to spin. One merely looked at the device as a novelty, as there was no discernible way a person could do anything with it. However, placing an attachment, such as a gear (an interface), would present the idea that the machine could be used to power something, although that was never done. Hero’s device would remain as a mere toy until the latter 1700s, when in 1698 English inventor Thomas Savery patented the first crude steam engine. Similarly, designing a farm tractor hitch to indicate that various devices can be hooked to the vehicle is an example of an interface that gives the user information that a piece of machinery can be used in numerous ways. Interfaces, then, tell people what functions are available for use and how to interact with them.

As devices became more complicated, humans had to be more mindful of how well they were functioning, as well as whether they functioned at all. The advent of gauges and meters allowed a more human-machine interaction, where humans would discern the level of functionality and, in turn were able to respond. Today, we have computer graphics to render interfaces to tell users what they can do with an application, the most common being graphical user interfaces (GUI). Graphics are not found only on a computer but are what is presented to the driver of a modern automobile to show what a person can do.

Depending upon the price of the vehicle, the user gets what s/he wants up to the point of the car actually being able to steer itself. Two groups of technologies are available, the first being directly related to the steerage of the vehicle and the second, “other”, non-steering-related features, such as entertainment, weather, and so forth. Types of information can be conveyed visually and by audio pertaining to fuel, condition of brakes, tire pressure, maps, and driving suggestions. For electro-mobile vehicles design isn’t affected; there are the same considerations, only the information reflects status of power – battery, thermal, and so forth. Emerging technology is more interactive with the driver, such as being able to detect and warn of drowsiness. There are touch screen technology and interfaces with mobile devices, such as Blackberry and iPad. Maps can show traffic lights and optimum speed needed to pass through them safely.

So, we see the logical way of discussing HMI is to determine what the function is being performed and how the human interacts with it. First, we must assess how far the technology can be developed.

Potential and limits of user centered design HMI

We have a continuum of control over a vehicle from direct human contact to the vehicle driving itself in response to the driver’s wishes, or, in a more fanciful world, anticipating the driver’s intention and acting accordingly. In between passive gauges and a vehicle with consciousness is where we find ourselves. User needs and wants are balanced by technological capability, but, perhaps more importantly, environmental and physical constraints, as well as practical limits. Just because something can be done technologically doesn’t mean that it should be done, such as the flying cars. (In fact, they have been invented and flown but they really never “took off”.) HMI is not all about a matter of glitz and gadgetry. We must see everything in a larger context. Two areas in which HMI is being developed are in actual driving and in personal comfort. We will consider first how driving is being shaped.

“Sustainability” is a major watchword, and this comes in the form of traffic management and fuel availability, among other factors. Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company speech at Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in March 2011. [TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading [2]. Ford stated that we cannot simply have more roads. For example, the average commute in Beijing is five hours. In the summer of 2010 there was a 100 mile traffic jam that took 11 days to clear in China. In the coming decades 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities, 50 of which will have more than 10 million people.

To address all of this, Ford stated that we need “smart’ cars, “smart” roads, public transport, and other measures that will address the overcrowding of cars on the highways in order to have the freedom of mobility. Some technology to address the issue has been developed. Smart cars have the capability of detecting empty parking spaces, thus obviating having to drive a long time searching. Already, in many cities there are timed traffic lights, where by maintaining an optimal speed, a driver can “make” every light without stopping. Added to this, however, is forward-looking traffic control (automatic positioning), where the driver is warned via an HMI of accidents, congestion, and construction, thus being given the option of taking different routes. A major cause of accidents is tailgating and failing to keep distance, but cars will have not only monitoring equipment but devices exist to physically slow down or stop the car before it crashes. Numerous systems have been deployed giving drivers directions through the global positioning system (GPS) as to the best routes both audibly and by text [3]. The only step remaining is to coordinate the cars with each other. To do this requires a global network and interconnected solutions. Vehicles will need to be treated as a large organism when viewed all at once, rather than individual isolated personal units.

To maximize the effectiveness of this technology means an integrated transport system that coordinates traffic flow. At this point drivers have the choice to override the recommendations of a car’s computer, but it is by no means certain that this will be possible if current trends continue of more automobiles being on the road. People may perforce have less of a choice about being in total charge about where and when they will navigate, not unlike a packet of information being routed over a communications network by sophisticated management software. Development is progressing towards cars communicating with each other via mesh networks, much in the same way people do in walking in crowded spaces, in order to keep distance and choose the most efficient routes. It is anticipated that a person entering a crowded area will be switched to a network and integrated into the traffic management process for that area.

Aside from technology to regulate the movement of cars in a coordinated fashion, car sharing [4], mass transit, and bicycling must be used, but the former two are anticipated to be in the network as well. Besides these modes of transportation is what might be called “personal busses”. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi claims itself to be carbon neutral and has a system of driverless “Personal Rapid Transit” electric vehicles, where a person hops in and is transported automatically to where s/he wants to go [5]. This system points to a major problem that current petroleum fueled vehicles face: peak oil. Organizations like Oil Drum [6] argue that there simply will not be petroleum available in the future for vehicles. Alternative fuel sources and switching to electro-mobility (all electric transportation systems) will be necessary, but this does not seem to imply major changes in the basic concepts of HMI. Germany is pressing ahead with its national platform for electro-mobility, which prioritizes research, development, and deployment of electric-based transportation, including networking all transportation systems [7]. There will be, of course, different information displayed in such systems, such as the amount of battery power left and the thermal condition of electric vehicles, but the main function will be the integration of vehicles into a global transportation network.

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References (Subject is indicated by URL – accessed 2 July 2011)
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