Designing auditory warning signals to improve the safety of commercial vehicles

University dissertation from Luleå tekniska universitet

Abstract: Based on four studies, this thesis aims to explore how to design auditory warning signals that can facilitate safer driving by operators of heavy goods vehicles. The first three studies focus on the relationships between certain characteristics of auditory warnings and various indicators of traffic safety. A deeper understanding of these relationships would allow system developers to design auditory signals that are better optimised for safety. The fourth study examines the opinions of both vehicle developers and professional drivers regarding warning attributes. One major conclusion is that meaningful warning sounds that are related to the critical event can improve safety. As compared with arbitrarily mapped sounds, meaningful sounds are easier to learn, can improve drivers’ situation awareness, and generate less interference and less annoyance.The present thesis also supports the view that commercial drivers’ initial acceptance of these sounds may be very high. Annoyance is an especially important aspectof warning design to consider; it can negatively influence driving performance and may lead drivers to turn off their warning systems. This research supports the notion that drivers do not consider that negative experience is an appropriate attribute of auditory warnings designed to increase their situation awareness. Also, commercial drivers seem to report, significantly more than vehicle developers, that having less-annoying auditory warnings is important in high-urgency driving situations. Furthermore, the studies presented in this thesis indicate that annoyance cannot be predicted based on the physical properties of the warning alone. Learned meaning, appropriateness of the mapping between a warning and a critical event, and individual differences between drivers may also significantly influence levels of annoyance. Arousal has been identified as an important component of driver reactions to auditory warnings. However, high levels of arousal can lead to a narrowing of attention, which would be suboptimal for critical situations during which drivers need to focus on several ongoing traffic events. The present work supports the notion that high-urgency warnings can influence commercial drivers’ responses to unexpected peripheral events (i.e., those that are unrelated to the warning) in terms of response force, but not necessarily in terms of response time. The types of auditory warnings that will be developed for future vehicles depend not only on advances in research, but also on the opinions of developers and drivers. The present research shows that both vehicle developers and drivers are aware of several of the potentially important characteristics of auditory warnings. For example, they both recognise that warnings should be easy to understand. However, they do disagree regarding certain attributes of warnings, and, furthermore, developers may tend to employ a “better safe than sorry” strategy (by neglecting factors concerning annoyance and the elicitation of severe startled responses) when designing high-urgency warnings. Developers’ recognition of the potentially important attributes of auditory warnings should positively influence the future development of in-vehicle systems. However, considering the current state of research regarding in-vehicle warnings, it remains challenging to predict the most suitable sounds for specific warning functions. One recommendation is to develop a design process that examines the appropriateness of in-vehicle auditory warnings. This thesis suggests an initial version of such a process, which in this case was produced in collaboration with system designers working in the automotive industry.

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