With rising disposable incomes and the growing demographic of people using vehicles in India, OEMs need to consider several factors to ensure complete safety and comfort.
When one thinks of ergonomics, the first thing that comes to mind is seating. The concept of an “ergonomically designed chair” has been aggressively marketed for use in office spaces or homes. In actuality ergonomics is the science of using spaces effectively and functionally. In the case of automobiles or buses and vans, space needs to be used effectively.
Ergonomics is the interaction between a person and the things they use. For example, the products usability and the comfort level. The things to keep in mind are that many demographics are now using vehicles such as women driving SUVs, elderly people, differently abled or special needs people who need to drive vehicles. Questions like how can the usability of the vehicles be more efficient to include different demographics and how can the smoothness of vehicles be improved for the sake of the safety need to be answered by those implementing ergonomical designs in the interiors of vehicles.
The importance of ergonomics
Ergonomics play a very important role in the everyday vehicle usage because it is the logic behind every little feature being present in a vehicle. The relevance of ergonomics has only increased in the last few years and will continue to grow in the times to come. The trigger for this is that the customer expectations have increased over time and will continue to do so in future as well. OEMs have to understand these expectations and use ergonomics to help build products that are successful and accepted by the consumer.
For example, with the increase in traffic on the road, time spent in the vehicle is also increasing. This means that customers now are giving more value to comfort and infotainment while making their purchase decisions.
For many years, customers were happy buying a vehicle with a standard seat and a radio player but today this has grown to having an option of electric seat adjustment, comfort seating, seat ventilation or heating, massage function, Bluetooth connectivity, internet radio and even mobile app integration as part of the vehicle features. To accommodate all these requirements OEMs have had to rely on vehicle ergonomics in the designing phase which meets all these customer expectations. Ergonomics is surely a vast subject and involves a lot of disciplines for a vehicle manufacturer. At the core, ergonomics applies to the design of anything that involves people. Ergonomics play a critical role in delivering comfort, driving pleasure, ride experience, safety and convenience with inclusion of specific amenities to fulfil the purpose of the vehicle. “We see a lot of improvements in ergonomics implemented by Indian vehicle manufacturers and is becoming an important decision factor for today’s buyers,” says Sudhir Mehta, Chaiman and Managing Director, Pinnacle Industries.
Safety as a feature
There are mainly five aspects of ergonomics - safety, comfort, ease of use, productivity and aesthetics.
While spending for aesthetics is a stretch, spending for safety is something that customers don't have any qualms about. It is the one aspect that no one wants to compromise on. Usually there are standard features for safety such as airbags in every car. However, extra care needs to be taken if optimum safety is to be ensured.
Ergonomics has a great impact on active as well as passive safety and health of the passengers with seating being the most important part which is used maximum in the vehicle if designed wrongly can be very bad for the drivers or passengers on board. A bad design of seat can cause issues of lumbar pain (lumbar column in the spinal cord) after long distance travel and fatigue. Also vehicle vibrations due to uneven roads can directly reach the passengers’ bodies which can cause nausea.
From an OEM's perspective on safeety, BMW's active headrests ensure outstanding seating comfort as well as reduce the risk of neck or head injury. They reposition themselves automatically to suit the current seat position, as well as offer additional protection by minimising backwards movement of the head against whiplash injury in the event of an accident. Sensors immediately recognise an impact situation. A pressurised gas generator is triggered, moving the headrests forward to gently support the head. The vertebrae and muscles of the neck are protected from the strain and trauma that can result from an accident.
After safety the other aspect to consider is comfort. Often the two go hand in hand. "Our focus when customizing interiors of the vehicles is largely on the comfort and experience side," explains Mehta.
For example, one of the core segments of Pinnacle Industries is tours and travel operators and Force Traveller van rental companies. Its research for this segment revealed that when traveling in large groups with family and friends on holidays, pilgrimage or special events by road, increasing number of Indian travellers are becoming comfort-conscious and they are ready to spend more towards comfort and luxury of travel by road.
“That’s why we offer wide range customisation and conversion options for a variety of vehicle configurations to deliver the most comfort through a variety of seating options and layouts and enhanced interiors for the ultimate travel experience,” adds Mehta.
From the perspective of OEMs, Vikram Pawah, President of BMW Group India has this to say about how BMW employs ergonomical design in their vehicles “As in all BMWs, well-researched ergonomics allow for optimum operation of driving controls and other functions. All displays, knobs and buttons serving comfort functions are situated centrally for use by the driver and front passengers; controls for the driver's use only are to the left of the steering wheel, on or near the steering wheel, or on the front center console. The steering wheel has power tilt and telescopic adjustment and tilt-away for exit and entry; and of course both front seats come standard with 10-way power adjustment including head-restraint height”
Some of the seating features in BMW vehicles include a cockpit driver orientation. In a typical BMW style, the cockpit is inclined towards the driver at an angle of approximately seven degrees and the asymmetrically designed center console likewise emphasises this clear orientation to the driver. The horizontal lines of the instrument panel accentuate the feeling of space.
A perfect seating position is essential for comfortable driving. A typical feature of BMW interiors is the comfortable seating for the driver and generously spacious seating for the passenger for blissful travel.
“Comfort seats can be adjusted in their lateral position, seat height, seat angle and back-rest angle. Seating depth and lumbar-support height and depth can also be altered for maximum comfort. The lumbar support is based on a system of air chambers that can be inflated to varying levels. By encouraging a healthy orthopaedic seating posture, it reduces strain on the back muscles.
Thanks to the memory function, two different individual configurations can be saved – including position of the seat, backrest steering column, exterior mirrors and steering wheel. A simple press of a button is all that's needed to return all settings to your preferences,” adds Pawah.
Catering to different demographics
Before there wasn't as much inclusivity when it came to designing a vehicle. Much of the earlier designs didn't make it easy for senior citizens or people with disablilty to travel. "Being part of commercial vehicle industry we see huge scope for improvements in the area for the specially-abled passengers. As part of its customisation, Pinnacle Industries provide washrooms and pantry in the vehicle which is bare necessity during long distance travels for senior citizens, and other travellers," states Mehta.
Usually AC buses are fully closed no space for fresh air causing issues of dizziness and vomiting to passengers, with the option of window in window should be provided with the option for getting fresh air during AC failures. This will make the journey less troublesome for those with travel sickness.
“We also have a solution for powered platform for wheelchairs, which help to allow the specially-abled individuals to easily get in and out of the vehicle, which otherwise is herculean task,” says Mehta.
Other important aspects
A system like infotainment is now increasingly becoming important as vehicle users don’t just need a radio or music player. Infotainment systems have to perform various functions what with the addition of Infotainment plays a big role in Pinnacle’s vehicle modifications as the company design interiors of tourer, motorhomes and business vans with smart TVs, individual screens for each passenger, and mobile device operated controls. This enables customers to customise their audio/video entertainment options that are touch screen or voice controlled.
Special information screens inside the vehicle or on mobile allow passengers to view live traffic, weather, nearby restaurants, and other trip related information. With Wifi and A/V systems passengers can conduct voice and video calls on the go. New technologies coming in the infotainment area can be utilised for further improving ergonomics.
The placement and quality of the infotainment features plays an important role in both ergonomics and acoustic comfort. Wrong placement of high-volume speakers can be a discomfort. Infotainment systems have seen a lot of development in passenger vehicles in the last few years. Today infotainment systems offer a lot of functionalities to the driver and passengers in the vehicle right from parking assistance to watching movies to checking your mails or literally posting twitter updates. BMW has many ‘firsts’ in offering infotainment features in passenger vehicles ie right from offering an integrated navigation system to offering compatibility with third party mobile apps.
The iDrive Controller, gear selector and driving function buttons on the centre console are all positioned in the classic BMW arrangement. The instrument cluster in the BMW i8 takes the form of a fully digital multifunctional instrument display. Three-dimensional graphics are used to present the current road speed in digital form, information on the vehicle and powertrain status, as well as feedback from the driver assistance systems, check controll messages and detailed route instructions.
Gesture Control, which is part of a rigorously thought-out operating concept, recognises six pre-defined hand movements for control of a number of functions. This includes volume control, accepting or rejecting phone calls, acknowledging check control messages, closing an information window, changing the camera angle etc. There is also the option of pairing a specific gesture with an individual choice of function.
Keeping up with the trends
Testing is a vital part of the vehicle development. No product should be approved without proper checks.
According to Mehta, customer demand is a more driving trend for the improvements in ergonomics of the vehicle compared to the vehicle regulations. Still there is scope for improving the regulations mainly for specially-abled passengers, school children, and passengers who seek comfort and convenience for better ride experience. The government, he says, surely has to play its part on the safety side and more environment friendly vehicles.
The testing can be considered in two parts: one, with the end user and other considering the regulatory requirements. For example, static comfort can be evaluated by pressure mapping on seats, says Pawah. The end user experience can be captured through the first hand interviews during the customer trials, which will be input for improvement of current products and future also.
"Further, once the vehicles are sold in the market there is always feedback taken on whether we can improve the ergonomics of the vehicle and then we implement the same in the next product update or generation change," he adds.
Any change in the product is backed by feedback from customers, markets, generic trends and research. There are a lot of factors which determine what should be considered and what should not be considered such as development costs, regulations, market demand to name a few.
On the electric vehicle front, Pawah says that there is definitely scope to differentiate the interiors and exterior design of an EV from IC. It also depends on the company’s ideology and purpose of introducing EVs in the market. "For BMW, we represent the electric mobility through our sub brand BMW i. In India, we offer the BMW i8 which is a plug-in-hybrid with highly efficient BMW eDrive technology and recyclable materials in the interior,” he explains.
In all this, ergonomical design that keeps safety and inclusivity in mind needs to be extended to more than just luxury vehicles. For wide spread adoption, OEMs and the government need to be proactive.
Being part of commercial vehicle industry we see huge scope for improvements in the area for the specially-abled passengers.
- Sudhir Mehta, Chairman and MD, Pinnacle Industries
There is definitely scope to differentiate the interiors and exterior design of an EV from IC. It also depends on the company’s ideology and purpose of introducing EVs in the market. For BMW, we represent the Electric mobility through our sub brand BMW i.
- Vikram Pawah, President, BMW Group India
Some of the aspects that need to be kept in mind while employing ergonomical design