mazda3 controller knob snip.JPG
Mazda3 controller knob larger, more forward than in outgoing generation.

Why Mazda is Blindfolding Its Engineers and Designers

The Japanese automaker aims to develop good ergonomics and HMI for its vehicles, pointing to the new Mazda3 compact car as proof of its endeavors.

SACRAMENTO, CA – Citing statistics showing 80% of vehicle collisions result from driver distraction, Mazda says it has thoroughly redesigned the cockpit of the Mazda3 to make sure information is easy to see, controls are easy to reach, and menus aren’t overly complex to navigate.

“According to NHTSA and Virginia Tech data, 80% of collisions involve driver distraction within three seconds of the accident,” Matt Valbuena, senior engineer-HMI and in-vehicle technology for Mazda North American Operations, tells media here at a recent ’19 Mazda3 preview.

With the new-generation Mazda3 compact car, on sale now in the U.S., Mazda worked to minimize visual, cognitive and manual distractions, Valbuena says.

To help thwart all three, Mazda has a bigger and farther-away infotainment screen controlled via a large center-console mounted rotary knob.

The automaker continues to eschew smartphone-like touchscreens (its last was in the ’15 CX-5 CUV) in favor of a BMW-style controller knob because “when you’re interacting with a touchscreen, you physically have to reach toward the touchscreen and you have to make gross motor inputs,” Valbuena explains. “I have to use my entire arm just to make a small input with the tip of my index finger.”

He says oftentimes drivers take their shoulders off the seat to reach for a touchscreen, and in doing so apply torque to the steering wheel.

“We have found in our testing the driver inadvertently would move from their ideal centered lane position when interacting with the touchscreen,” Valbuena says.

In keeping with the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, or continuous improvement, during R&D for a new vehicle Mazda blindfolds members of its design and in-vehicle technology teams to determine how well controls fall to hand.

“The placement of controls definitely is something that we have to be cognizant of in terms of making sure that we're able to properly support the driver to minimize diver distraction,” Valbuena tells Wards. “They're always doing the tests…always changing things, trying things out, and seeing where there is always room for improvement.”

As a result of such tests, the automaker rearranges the Mazda3’s center console so everything is within reach more comfortably to mitigate manual and visual distraction.

The cupholders now are in front of the shifter, and the center armrest is larger and higher so a driver can rest their arm and use their fingers to make fine motor inputs via the rotary knob.

Mazda designers and engineers also give the Mazda3 a bigger screen than before but move it farther away and rearrange menus.

The infotainment screen grows from 7.0 ins. (18 cm) to 8.8 ins. (22 cm) and is moved 3.0 ins. (75 mm) farther away from the screen in the outgoing Mazda3 to minimize the amount of time it takes the driver’s eyes to focus on the roadway ahead after looking at the screen.

“All of the displays the driver interacts with on a frequent basis are moved higher up within the driver’s natural vision zone, their peripheral vision,” Valbuena says. “So even as they’re looking straight ahead, in their periphery they can see the center display and the gauge cluster.”

Mazda also raises higher on the center stack the car’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning controls to be nearer a driver’s natural vision line.

Not only is the infotainment screen bigger and farther away, but so is the gauge-cluster display and active driving display, the latter now a true head-up display with information projected on the windshield rather than a plastic lens atop the cluster hood as in the outgoing Mazda3.

The gauge-cluster display moves back 0.6 ins. (15 mm), and the HUD’s virtual image is 31.4 ins. (800 mm) farther away than images projected on the old plastic combiner lens, both changes to minimize eye-focus time.

Mazda3 HMI screens snip.JPG

The virtual images presented on the new HUD, which Valbuena notes is polarized-sunglasses’ friendly, are four times larger than images on the old-combiner lens display. The HUD also is contextually aware, meaning, for instance, if navigation is active then route guidance information will be projected onto the windshield.

To limit the cognitive distraction that can come from overstuffed menus, Mazda has just five items listed on its infotainment display screen’s main menu. This is a result of its adherence to “magic number seven (plus or minus two)” theory espoused in a 1956 paper by Harvard psychologist George Miller and which states the average adult can better memorize shorter lists of information.

He says the most items ever encountered on a Mazda3 screen will be seven.

Valbuena sees the controller in combination with these relatively few choices as one of the key ways to reduce driver distraction.

“You can feel the click on the knob as you rotate it (to) know (if) you’re two detents down,” he tells Wards. “I already know without looking that I’m on the second item on the screen. So (this setup) minimizes the glancing time,” he says, adding the glance angle also is reduced because of the screen’s positioning and there is minimal manual distraction due to the controller knob’s positioning at the fingertips.

Meanwhile, a limit of seven also applies to the five physical buttons on the center console plus the one controller knob and one volume knob.

Mazda claims the addition of explanations for certain infotainment features on the main screen also limits cognitive distraction. Valbuena notes in the past a driver would scroll to a feature name but may not have any idea what the feature did.

“So we have a graphic (aided by the new, larger screen) that represents what this feature does and a simple description of what that feature is,” he says. “The idea here is we want the consumer to easily understand what these given menu functions do.”

For the overall design and development of the new Mazda3, the automaker adhered to the idea of human-centered craftsmanship and how craftsmanship appeals to the senses of touch and sight.

It studied the circumplex model of affect, or the range of emotions felt when interacting with any physical object, to bring about positive user experiences, Valbuena says.

Thus, rubber and metal are used in the Mazda3’s switches for a smooth, plush, compliant-yet-crisp response to engender joyous user reactions.

“If you’re pushing, pulling, rotating, toggling – we mapped that stroke and force so it’s consistent throughout the vehicle for a more premium user experience with every single tactile button,” he says.

TAGS: Technology
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