(Autonomous) driving towards a circular future

In brief

Autonomous mobility has huge potential to drive humanity towards a sustainable future—creating key links within circular supply chains, and between technology, people, and their environments. In preparation for collaboration with a stealth startup in this space, I conducted a research and design sprint to elevate and address UX/UI challenges facing autonomous vehicle (AV) adoption, and envisioned an AV-powered circular future of food.

UX/UI design, workshop facilitation, research, strategy

Trust: the key to a circular future


Autonomous mobility technology is rapidly evolving, but adoption is slow. To fully understand the roadblocks between today and an AV-powered sustainable future, I conducted a design sprint to identify and address challenges in L2-3 automation.

Autonomous vehicles can become an essential link in a circular system, addressing the need to transport products between consumers and entities who can recycle/repurpose them.
Today’s linear economy takes resources from cradle to grave, producing unsustainable waste. A circular economy adds value at every stage in a product’s life cycle—but requires technology and transportation to function.
After working on circular economy projects at IDEO, I was curious to explore AV’s potential. However, my research uncovered a glaring problem: people don’t trust AV.
In 2019, 71% of Americans reported fear of self-driving cars. Before we can reach a circular future, we need to build trust in AV.
As with our approach to nuclear disarmament, we can do so by verifying that humans and machines are interacting in ways that promote the safety of billions worldwide.
Research and discovery

With lives on the line, building trust in AV is no simple task. To get it right, I dug into the science of trust and HMI. After rapid user research, I mapped the myriad factors that shape our feelings towards AV to UX/UI design interventions.

Adapted from K.A. Hoff’s conceptual model, I diagrammed the complex factors that influence trust—including our mental state, existing knowledge, and system performance—and their influence on our interaction with AV.
I then synthesized the results of my literature review into an extensive framework of the factors affecting trust, categorizing essential design considerations and potential interventions related to each.
I conducted five user research interviews and combined with survey data from PwC to define four key personas, distinguished by their varied enthusiasm for driving and technology.
Building on research, I mapped the key stages in a user’s journey through their introduction to AV and tied in key trust factors from my framework. I chose to focus my design solutions on the transition between manual and autonomous driving (AD).

Trust the (design) process

Design for familiarity

Armed with research insights, I dove into a quick design phase. This was a fun opportunity to explore unfamiliar UI and experiment with bringing key trust-building factors to life in a new AV HMI concept.

After rapid wireframing, I developed an instrument display for users unfamiliar with AV. The home base highlights the driver's preferences—from color scheme to calendar—building comfort while providing quick access to key features. Learning the driver’s habits, the base will highlight contextually relevant applications based on location or time of day.
The primary instrument cluster sets the stage for driver trust. Visible ADAS feature status and mode selection create an important sense of control, while (research suggests) a subtly anthropomorphized AI creates a calming human connection.
Symbolizing trust

Symbols create fast associations between the material and the emotional. On my center display, I took a first step towards creating a standardized visual language connecting trust and AV.

To facilitate a subconscious connection between AV and trust, I created a visual symbol for driver assistance and safety.
On the center display, tapping this symbol opens essential safety features. Research indicates inaccessibility and misunderstanding of ADAS options hinders adoption, so this design offers clear affordances to control ADAS and illustrates their functionality.
The center display is optimized for use in transit, featuring a drag-and-drop modular screen with buttons left-aligned for accessibility while driving. When AD is available, its status is indicated using contrasting color to set expectations and facilitate an easy transition.
Dialing it in

Today’s touchscreen-touting vehicles aren’t the easiest to use, requiring precise taps and eyes off the road. I envisioned an improved button that merges physical and digital to boost comfort and control without a second glance.

This app-customizable button would sit within easy reach of the driver on the dashboard.
After mapping the button to their preferences, a driver uses simple gestures to navigate between apps with ease, adjusting common settings like volume, air flow, or an easy transition to AD with a quick turn of the magic dial.
Giving up control, not comfort

With the bulk of my design interventions intended to set the stage for a trust-filled transition to AD, I took a quick stab at visualizing a driving experience that helps users feel safe—even when their car is the one in control.

When the driver transitions to AD using the dial, gear shift, or touch screen, it is communicated through auditory/haptic cues, lighting, and changes in UX.
In AD mode, the navigation display helps users visualize what the AV senses, and anticipates user confusion with clear messaging around action and intention.
On our road to autonomous mobility, small design interventions can add up to the personal and cultural shifts necessary to create trust—and change.

Building an AV-powered circular future of food

A smarter food system

Considering future applications of autonomous mobility, my interest in food systems was inspiration for developing a vision for a circular economy of food, linked by autonomous technologies.

Food waste and distribution are among the most significant challenges of our age. Facing a growing global population with shrinking resources, we’re in urgent need of solutions.
I began by diagramming key food system stakeholders, mapping the gaps in the circular supply chain. With creative application of autonomous technology, I could fill these gaps—transforming otherwise landfill-bound food into community value.
I then mapped a complete circular food journey through real locations in San Francisco, strategizing the roles of stakeholders and AV, and identifying profit-, job-, and community value-generating opportunities at every step along the way.
AV owners could capitalize on their vehicle downtime, delivering surplus groceries or donations too small for traditional transportation to community culinary schools or commercial kitchens, producing meals to distribute in neighborhood kiosks and nursing homes, and collecting compostable waste to nurture the next crop.