Taking a Human Factors Approach to Intelligent Mobility

by | Jul 27, 2018 | Safety, Technology

Intelligent Mobility – a silver bullet?

Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) and the new public transport models and powertrain technologies which are developing with them, are regularly positioned as the solution to a wide range of societal challenges ranging from:

·     city centre congestion – and the consequent costs from lost productivity and ill-health impacts from air pollution

·     road safety problems – after all, the often-cited statistic about accidents is that we can trace 94% to human behaviour (1)… (more on this later), and

·     isolation and societal fragmentation – with those in rural environments insufficiently served by public transport options (2).

However, to realise the benefits these new technologies and service models afford, there are a myriad of ‘human’ issues to be understood.

How can we address issues of trust (in both the technology and in other people with whom vehicles may be shared); behavioural change elements to support new technology uptake; and socio-political aspects of geographical equality and the policy requirements for change?

The complexity of these issues alongside the socio-technical nature of the systems in the intelligent mobility domain, mean a human factors approach is ideal (by which I mean a systems-thinking, human and system goal optimising, design discipline – (3)).

But what can a Human Factors Approach really bring?

One of the heroes of our discipline, the late Professor John Wilson, described Human Factors as a mix of science, craft and art. This is one of the great strengths of Human Factors and the reason, alongside its human centred nature, that it’s so helpfully placed to deal with the range of problems I’ve outlined.

For example, optimising end-to-end journeys for people, under the banner of ‘Mobility as a Service’ (MaaS) is proposed as part of the solution to city centre congestion. The MaaS trials in which we have engaged to date, have been part science (helping us work out our hypotheses; a sampling strategy; and an analytical approach). They have been part craft, as we have developed personas and the information delivery methods for our trials. Finally, they have been art, as we have (literally in some cases) drawn a picture of what’s possible from our minds-eye and asked people to go with us.

A focus on the interactions…

If 94% of car accidents are ’caused’ by human behaviour (and therein lies another article) then 94% of human behaviour can be seen to be driven by the ‘system’ (I’m using more art than science with my statistic here). In order really to understand what’s happening on our roads, and then to build solutions which really solve the safety issues, our focus must not only be on the internal human ‘drivers’ of behaviour, but on the contextual factors and wider interactions of the whole system from which the behaviour emerges.

Deirdre O’Reilly (4), Head of Social Research and Behaviour Change at Highways England explains: “We want to really understand what influences drivers’ behaviour on our network, all the interactions between them and the wider system element. By adopting the Safe System approach, we recognise that safety is our shared responsibility and we want to use all the avenues at our disposal to support drivers to ‘do the right thing’.”

Human Factors risk analysis tools like NET-HARMS (5) allow us to start to model the interactions between risks and not just deal with discreet elements. This leads nicely to my last point…

A system’s thinking approach…

“If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.” (6) Douglas Adams

To work on big social issues like isolation and fragmentation using future mobility solutions, we need to admit that these issues are what my old boss used to describe as ‘way more than a head full’. The temptation is therefore to dissect the problem into smaller parts because then the issues becomes manageable. But then we don’t see the whole, and we don’t see the properties which emerge from the whole – we need a systems-thinking approach rather than only a reductionist approach to do this, sometimes looking at the whole system and not only slices of it.

Immersive techniques such as ethnography are pivotal to support an understanding of the system as a whole.

Felicity Heathcote Marcz, Cyborg Ethnographer in SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business explains…

‘By immersing myself in the context of interest, I can gain a much richer understanding of what it’s really like. It’s vital to get below the surface of complex issues and systems, and start to observe why people think, feel and do what they do. Without approaches like ethnography, this depth of understanding evades us.’

So where does that leave us?

There is great potential in the new mobility technologies and business models developing at this point in our human history. On their own, they are not a silver bullet for all of our modern-day ills, but, to mix metaphors, a Human Factors approach can certainly bring them a shot in the arm…

Dr Claire Williams is Technical Director for intelligent mobility at SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business


1 https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812115

2 https://www.sustrans.org.uk/lockedout

3 Human Factors & Ergonomics in Practice: Improving System Performance and Human Well-Being in the Real World. Steven Shorrock & Claire Williams, CRC Press, 2017.

4 http://roadsafetyinsight.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/20/2017/06/rsbs-report-2.1.pdf

5 (Dallat et al, 2017)

6 https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-top-ten-douglas-adams-sayings-8803770.html

Claire Williams will be talking further on human behaviours at Highways UK 2018.

See the iM Hub at: www.atkinsglobal.com/im and join the intelligent mobility discussion on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8382671


Dr Claire Williams

Dr Claire Williams – Technical Director for intelligent mobility Atkins