Ask Nandita Mangal, who leads automated driving experience and mobility design research, about her role at Aptiv and she will give you an answer as daunting as it is simple: “To think about everything under the sun when it comes to the human experience around autonomous vehicles.”
A lofty goal, for sure, but every day Nandita and her Mountain View team of designers, researchers, and engineers come closer to achieving it. How? By accompanying hundreds of people on their first rides in an autonomous vehicle.
“There’s so much more to the autonomous driving puzzle than technology,” Nandita explains. “My group’s sole focus is the end-to-end experience around using that technology, because in the end, that’s what will drive the success of any autonomous driving initiative.”
And what better way to get at that user experience than by putting subjects in the real thing. “We can miss real-world context with a simulator,” Nandita says. “That’s why we put riders in an actual car, on an actual road, and then ask them how they’re feeling.”
The answers are as diverse as the people providing them. But it’s these informational nuggets that inform each iteration of Aptiv’s rapidly developing autonomous vehicle innovation and novel mobility frameworks in cities.
When testing voice interactions in the car, Nandita remembers one research subject identifying KITT from Knight Rider as her dream voice for the vehicle’s communications system. Why? Because she wanted her autonomous car to mimic her childhood sci-fi memories.
“We shared a laugh over that one,” Nandita recalls, but she acknowledges that these are the nuggets of information that shed light on the myriad user experience factors that need to be considered when creating the best possible user experience.
“We can’t wait until after the technology is developed to understand what users want and what their perceptions would be,” Nandita says. “We have to incorporate those user insights into the technology right now and we have built an innovative platform to do just that at scale.”
Analyzing real-time insights from hundreds, even thousands, of riders ranging from nervous skeptics to enthusiastic early adopters is exhaustive but ultimately gratifying work. The best part for Nandita and the team is when they see something they learned from a user study applied to new prototypes for the in-vehicle experience.
Early in their research, for example, Nandita’s team discovered that users were extremely concerned about the safety of the pedestrians and bicyclists they encountered during their drives. The users could see them, but the worry was whether the car saw them, too. This insight informed the way the screen system in Aptiv’s autonomous vehicles now acknowledges potential hazards it encounters while out on the road.
“Those are moments when you feel so much satisfaction,” says Nandita. “Because you know you’re playing a role in keeping the technology moving forward in the right direction.”
What does the future hold for Nandita and her team? More user rides, for starters. Lots of them. “Every ride is an opportunity for our engineers to hear firsthand from the people who hold the future of our technology in their hands,” Nandita explains. “The better we can understand what’s in their heads, the better we can make their experience with our technology.”