Persuasive driving assistant

Persuading young drivers to drive safe





Doménique van Gennip

My role

I designed a persuasive robot that influences the driving behaviour of young drivers. Focusing on safety is important for novice drivers, because they face higher risks than other drivers for various reasons. Persuading them to make safer choices while driving could significantly reduce accidents.

Early process: focus on risk awareness

The basic concept is that the device, early in the process depicted as a glowing orb, gives timely feedback based on driving situations and behaviour. It would use map and live vehicle data to accomplish this.

The product should promote safer driving through better understanding of one’s own behaviour. My goal was to advice the driver on the risks taken (or about to be taken) in relation to the ‘real risk’. This real risk should be derived from knowledge of the immediate environment, such the route taken, nearby crossings, speed limits, possibly accident data and current movement data of the vehicle. The advice intends to raise awareness and reflection on behaviour that ultimately leads to safer driving behaviour.

Apart from achieving persuasion, a major challenge is to reach that goal while not alienating users for fear of loss of freedom and independence. For young drivers, independence is a large motivation for driving.

Stakeholder map for young drivers and others. This map was based on desk research, a survey sent out to young drivers, and conversations with a small number of drivers.

Designing the driving assistant

Early ideas for product direction. L-to-R: animated ring light around TomTom device, hands around existing device (mimicking TomTom's logo), dashboard-mounted glowing orb, and a robot creature.

Because the product should be persuasive, and persuasion works best with social incentives, I decided to dive deeper into the animated robot direction. I wanted to give the impression there would be someone driving along with my novice drivers, there to help if needed.

I went ahead with a dashboard-mounted persuasive robot linked up to a TomTom product. This robot warns ahead of potentially dangerous situations and gives the young driver feedback on performance. Indeed, prior research suggests people can be persuaded to behave in a safer way because of such ‘social’ feedback.

User feedback for the robot’s gestures

The robot conveys its messages by making a range of gestures. To keep the design simple and avoid distractions, three behaviours were pursued further: positive for encouragement, negative for discouraging unsafe driving, and alerting to warn for upcoming situations. The actual gestures made were inspired by having a number of young people adjust a wireframe figure to portray certain emotions. Similar fast evaluations were done to inform the visual design.

Usr study participants were asked to deform a simple metal wire figure to depict several emotive stances. Afterwards, the results were visually cataloged to help deciding how the robot should move.

Form explorations

For the robot's shape, I approached young drivers and asked them to sort cards of figures in order of their visual appeal. On average, it led to this order (most appealing on the left, least on the right). The ones with most appeal seem more abstract, have simpler shapes, and flat colours.

Foam models created during the visual exploration phase. I liked the figure in the middle but it needed arms to better convey gestures.

Various options to connect the robot with a personal navigation device in-car. Apparently, in-built navigation systems or something with less wire clutter wasn't an option back then...

Final design

A working prototype of the robot was built, including the ability to move its head and arms. The servo motors under its shell were controlled via an Arduino that I hid in a mock-up TomTom navigation device (see image on top, in the background).

On the left, an early interactive sketch with servo motors clearly visible. The final package (with glass-reinforced plastic over a foam base) hides the motors better but still requires large gaps to allow for movement.

The video below shows the robot in action, in glorious 480p resolution. It was all we had, kids ;)

Thesis report

The final report, documenting the process and results in greater detail, is available online.

Reflection twelve years on

Looking back on this in 2022, I can see there’s room for improvement on most aspects but what stands out:

  • The project lacked an ongoing user evaluation process, so I’m not sure if young drivers would actually like this kind of intervention.
  • Especially the alerting movement is grabbing attention but right when attention should be directed outward, so it may work counterproductive.
    • Other ways of conveying info should be considered.
    • Today, speech technology or even augmented reality visuals layered on top of the outside world would be viable options.
  • I wanted something recognisable as a ‘person,’ so I went with a robot separate from the TomTom device.
    • This gave more freedom as a design project but it’s not necessarily a better design.
    • Integration should have been considered in more detail.
  • The robot looks quite bland and has undesirable gaps. I remember running short on time, but if servo motors had been packaged lower in the abdomen of the robot, gaps could have been avoided.
  • Just the head but with animated eyes could have worked just as well as the whole robot body.
    • If the eyes were a display, it would enable showing situation-aware information, making it far more useful.
  • I should have made a mock-up of the robot in different colours, because white is really bland.