Towards a Safer, Happier Automotive Ecosystem
How Meeting Drivers’ Emotional Needs Creates Better Journeys For All

Imagine a world where driving is less stressful, your car is a supportive companion, and “sharing the road” is a team effort for everyone’s safety. This world is possible and not too distant - it’s just a matter of reframing vehicular safety through the lens of human emotion and, surprisingly, play.

A recent AAA survey reported a notable uptick in aggressive and reckless driving since the start of the pandemic. Our roads have become anxiety-inducing pressure cookers, and continue to fuel dread of the daily commute, especially as hybrid work increases. In fact, 60% of American drivers have said their loved ones feel threatened by unsafe driving conditions.

On a positive note, OEMs have consistently met the demand for enhanced safety features like blind-spot monitoring, four-wheel drive, and lane-departure warnings, often marketing them as key selling points. Today, most of these features have become table stakes. However, in the face of tighter budgets and inflation, customers need more. They expect brands to provide an emotional experience that transforms their relationship with the product and the world around it. We can leverage that desire for emotional connection to reduce stress, create safer driving patterns, recalibrate driver confidence, and create delightful moments of play within the task of driving.

At ustwo, we approach play as a way of thinking. This is what sets our philosophy apart from gamification, which treats play purely as a way of doing (earning badges, climbing leaderboards, and so on). In a mobility context, Play Thinking reframes automotive experiences, pairing the emotional states and responses of road users with the functional requirements of safe driving. The potential results? More positive brand perceptions, greater brand loyalty, increased word of mouth, and – most importantly – safer, happier roads.

Play can position “sharing the road” as a team sport instead of a battle royale

The daily commute feels like a solo mission, charged with the stress of time-sensitive obligations. In fact, “running late” is one of the leading reasons for aggressive driving, and the most frequent excuse for following too quickly and passing on the right. In this context, we see others as competition or obstacles to our destinations instead of a natural part of the mobility ecosystem.

But what if we used play to make considerate, conscientious actions an anticipated part of the journey?

Play Thinking would suggest we take inspiration from existing, functional safety features in the automotive world and pair them with game design principles to ultimately elicit better emotional outcomes from drivers.

For instance, Audi recently demonstrated its Connected Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) technology, a suite of visual and auditory warnings to help prevent avoidable collisions with cyclists, and eventually school buses and emergency vehicles. Alerts on the driver’s cockpit display warn of potential oncomers in the vicinity of the car, facilitating on-road harmony, especially in densely populated areas.

Play Thinking takes this a step further by homing in on the desired emotional outcomes of prosocial driving - does the driver feel a sense of pride, satisfaction, or altruism by sharing the road with others, especially non-vehicles? We then craft design principles that imbue feelings of accomplishment (joy to be had) while creating safer roads (job to be done).


Play can help drivers zone in instead of zone out

We’re culturally distracted, including on the road. In addition to aggressive driving, inattentive driving has escalated over the years. ~88% of drivers between 19 and 24 have admitted to engaging in risky behavior behind the wheel. In 2019 alone, there were 566 nonoccupants (pedestrians, bicyclists, and others) killed in crashes involving a distracted driver.

So how can we leverage play to keep drivers’ attention on the road and not stuck in the clouds of distraction?

In prioritizing users' emotional outcomes, we might think about design in a way that activates “flow states,” or moments of deep concentration and focus, by tapping into relaxing, meditative emotional frequencies.

Mercedes-Benz has been dabbling in this space via its recent partnership with Endel, a personalized audio company. Endel analyzes speed, driving style, weather, road type, and personal metrics in real time to create the optimal sound environment for drivers.

The most popular video games on the market utilize soundscapes and sound environments to create calming, invigorating, or even contemplative emotional states in gamers. So why not ask which emotions are a part of a driver’s flow state, when they should be introduced, and how long they should be sustained?

We can imagine a world where a driver, unenthusiastic about their morning commute, gets in the car feeling frustrated and fatigued, yet, through flow-inducing functionalities, arrives at their destination feeling refreshed and ready for the day.


Play can evenly calibrate driver confidence

The average American learns to drive a car around the age of 17 and proceeds to fortify driving patterns that stick around for life. Over the years, feelings of over and underconfidence begin to impact how drivers perceive their driving skills and subsequent decision-making abilities. 90% of accidents are caused by human error, yet 8 of 10 men believe that they're above-average drivers. Women more frequently report that they experience driving anxiety, and often find common tasks like backing out of a parking spot or merging onto a highway challenging.

As a result, modern safety features can feel like an overcorrection for drivers who are confident and cause intimidation and stress for those who feel apprehensive.

What if play could help us design in a way that calibrates safety features to driving patterns - with the goal of instilling an appropriate amount of confidence for all types of drivers at the forefront?

When we value feeling safe as much as being safe, we discover that when drivers feel both appropriately confident in their abilities and supported by their vehicles, they make smarter, safer decisions on the road.

Volvo has already begun asking interesting questions around how feelings and emotions can affect safety. Their “driver understanding system” can interpret if you’re drowsy or distracted and when the car might need to step in and help.

Now imagine we pair the functional intelligence of something like the “driver understanding system” with the desire to make drivers feel understood by their cars (a fairly sci-fi, yet fast-approaching possibility). Play Thinking allows us to unlock a whole new understanding of human-to-machine interaction and trust.