On That New Japanese Pedal Design

A number of people have written in to tell me about the new pedal design in the New York Times (as an aside, I always chuckle a bit when I get NYT links, as I have essentially read the paper seven days a week cover to cover since the late 1980s, when a college professor haughtily advised me it “would make a better person” — but I digress). One even reminded me that I was “harsh” on driver behavior (e.g., in this post).

What I had raised objections to in the whole debate over unintentional acceleration was its actual importance in the overall traffic safety picture; and whether our innovative energies wouldn’t be better focused on things like better impaired driving interventions.

That said, as someone who has written quite a bit on design, I’m always in favor of design that makes everyday life better, or eliminates simple human errors all of us, on one occasion or another, are bound to make. We can chastise the “idiots” who leave their card behind in an ATM, or designers can install a simple intervention, the beep that won’t stop sounding until you’ve removed your card. Of course, there are social issues here as well: Given the older demographic that seemed to be particularly implicated in the unintentional acceleration cases, is it a question of improving the car’s design to accommodate older drivers (in essence making a “Jitterbug” version of the car), or of more closely monitoring and perhaps restricting older drivers?

The bigger issue here, as the article notes, is changing the ingrained mass muscle memory of hundreds of millions of worldwide drivers; i.e., would the shift to a new pedal actually cause more injuries than reducing the (rare) instances of accidental acceleration. After all, the new pedal is just one of a number of design tweaks that have been proposed to improve traffic safety (e.g., changing the colors of brake lights or having them give a special display when they are fully depressed), but as the CHIMSIL showed, it takes years of research and testing to actually get these things implemented — and even then the predicted safety benefits might not meet expectations.

Curious to hear what you human factors folks have to say.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 4th, 2010 at 8:06 am and is filed under Cars, Cyclists, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 Responses to “On That New Japanese Pedal Design”

  1. Dave Says:

    Regarding the possibility of increased injuries through the forced muscle memory change in hundreds of millions fo worldwide drivers, I tend to think that the change would, if only temporarily, cause people to slow down and think harder about what they’re doing. I also think the amount of recklessness and the number of collisions would eventually climb back to the accepted equilibrium, given time.

    Honestly, my first thought was the tension of the lever, and how easily that rarely used muscle could cramp. It would be easier, perhaps, to pick out those who drive a lot, because the outside of their pedaling calf would be noticeably larger than the resting calf.

  2. Brent Says:

    I’ve always taken it as a rule of thumb that a new technology has to be ten times better to supplant the old. It’s up to you to figure out what “ten times” means in a given context, but I’d argue that this new pedal design doesn’t get there, especially given the installed base. The QWERTY keyboard has been “improved on” many times, too, but has remained curiously resistant to dying.

  3. SteveL Says:

    I believe the the big ATM enhancement to stop people leaving their card behind was actually to make you take your card before the money, people kept leaving after their goal “money in hand” was met before the housekeeping “retrieve card” was undertaking. Now even with beeping, the money and card gets retained if not retrieved with 30s, showing another failure mode: you grab the card and run off, forgetting about the cash.

    Manual transmissions are less prone to the accidental foot on the accelerator problem as they force you position both feet, and there’s a limit to how fast the car picks up speed when you do press the accelerator button. They also have a new escape option: push the left foot down to go into neutral. I’d argue then that the migration from manual to automatic transmission has been harmful
    * worse fuel economy
    * leads to the accidental foot on accelerator events
    * frees up a hand to do texting, drink coffee, etc.

  4. SpaceHobo Says:

    ATMs in Europe do indeed return your card to you first, and then spit out the money. If the money is not retrieved within a certain amount of time it is retracted into the machine, re-counted, and credited back to your account.

    The “advice slip” receipt always comes last, if requested.

    I often get asked why ATMs in the US do it all the wrong way around.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    I’m a usability researcher, though not in actual physical objects.

    I think it’s a big fail, for two reasons:

    1. This design affords a dangerous failure mode for people not used to it: hitting the brake instead of the accelerator. This will lead to lots of read-end collisions, some at dangerously high speed, and a variety of other crashes caused by inappropriate braking at speed.

    2. Twisting the foot outward is a very awkward motion.

    I think the design is naive at best.

  6. fred_dot_u Says:

    Not that I think the pedal design is necessarily bad nor good, but the idea that one can blame the lead driver in a rear-end collision is a poor reason for any decision. A recent decision in my area to install red-light cameras created outcry that there would be an increase in rear-end collisions. That would imply that stopping at a red light means you’re going to be hit from behind.

    If rear-end collions are a problem, fix that problem first or as well. I think the most common violation of today’s drivers is following too closely. Not the most common citation or traffic ticket, but the most common violation.

  7. Bossi Says:

    We once rigged a couple friends’ cars such that the brakes were essentially a dimmer light… press lightly & they ever-so-slightly illuminate; full depression broughout about a piercing red. Unfortunately we never really looked into it analytically… and that was before I was old enough to wonder if there were laws addressing the legality of that. I’d always wondered if a larger-scale evaluation might yield any significant pros or cons to such a configuration.

  8. Bossi Says:

    One additional thought… I learned driving using two feet — one over each pedal, only shifting my left foot to engage the clutch if in a manual transmission. My grandfather drove this way, and my dad would periodically do the same. My mom, however, has always been disturbed by this… afraid of running down the brakes more quickly by inadvertently depressing both slightly even during typical driving.

    I’ve never come across any research looking at this driving style from a wear & tear perspective nor safety perspective… I’d wager that using this style puts me in a definite minority, but it’s something I only recently began wondering if there’s any significant benefit or consequence to that.

  9. Jack Says:

    Yes it seems to be an awkward position and may cause more problems for all those athletes I know that have knee-ankle problems. Will it cause more drivers to a chose cruise control (which often causes drivers to avoid concentrating on unpredictable conditions) in urban environments?

    I often see drivers with their brake lights on while accelerating… clear evidence that other bad habits are becoming too common (in addition to texting, smoking, eating and other forms of distracted driving).

  10. Opus the Poet Says:

    Left-foot braking is common in racing, where it can save .02 or so seconds per turn. Aside from that I used to use it because I drove FWD cars and you could use brake and throttle together to turn the car in low-traction conditions, or even use it to make sure the nose of the car was pointed in the direction you wanted to go. But when I had to shift gears (manual transmission FWD car) I would have to use the right foot on both the brake and gas to get the car to downshift without abusing the syncros.

  11. Dave Says:

    I was taught in High School Drivers’ Ed (1986) that the left foot was ONLY for the clutch, and the right foot was for the brake and the accelerator. If you had an automatic, your left foot was never to be used. I don’t quite remember the rationale, but the school was quite adamant about it.

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