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Intuitive Human-Vehicle Interaction.

Rapid technological progress and automated driving are creating new demands for vehicle equipment. User Interaction (UI) spokesperson Maxi Vogel follows the development of new Mercedes-Benz models from the concept stage to completion. As a psychologist and an expert on human factors, she ensures that human needs and capabilities are optimally taken into account in this process. In her interview, she explains what MBUX – the intuitive Mercedes-Benz infotainment system – means in regard to ride comfort, what gestures have to do with it, and how her career at Mercedes-Benz began.

Hi, Maxi. You are the spokesperson for User Interaction, or UI for short, where you are responsible for holistic, intuitive user interaction in Mercedes-Benz vehicles. In the development of a new Mercedes-Benz model, what comes first for you: the user, or the technology?

The user, without a doubt, since the technology will ultimately be operated by human users. The user is the starting point for every consideration and development. Until recently, the focus was mainly on the driver. But now, with the DRIVE PILOT, automated driving at level 3 is being added. During the highly automated journey, DRIVE PILOT enables the driver to turn away from the traffic situation and to engage in certain secondary activities, be it communicating with colleagues via the in-car office, surfing the Internet or watching a film. At the same time, we are now gearing the infotainment offering towards the other vehicle occupants to an even greater extent. We have installed a co-driver display in the EQS, for example, since co-drivers want entertainment in the car too. This shows how we at Mercedes-Benz take multiple perspectives into account to create the most desirable cars on the market.

The central question that moves Maxi Vogel and her colleagues: How do we achieve the intuitive operation of Mercedes-Benz vehicles?
The central question that moves Maxi Vogel and her colleagues: How do we achieve the intuitive operation of Mercedes-Benz vehicles?

How do you approach your tasks in this context?

Here in the development department, we have a highly interdisciplinary team with an incredibly diverse range of specialisations. Personally, I always ask myself the following questions: What do people have in common in terms of how they behave, how they think or how they perceive information? And what, for those same reasons, is difficult or entirely impossible for people? In which cases would the driver use the assistance system? What information can enhance the driving experience? How and where can I display it optimally, for example in cases where the driver needs to be warned rapidly? This process incorporates findings from biology, physiology, neurology and psychology. My educational background in human factors has also proven helpful in this context.

That is an excellent keyword: As a trained psychologist, you continued your studies with a master's degree from the Human Factors program at TU Berlin, which combines knowledge from psychology, ergonomics and engineering. Is the human factor still underappreciated in the context of vehicle development?

I think it was underappreciated in some ways until a few years ago, but that is no longer the case today. Conversely, technological development is advancing rapidly and people have already become accustomed to things like touchscreens and voice control. Operation is subject to the requirements that it must be intuitive and that users must be able to speak freely rather than needing to remember fixed commands. We need to take this into consideration in the context of vehicle development as well, just like the changes resulting from automated driving.

Are you involved in the development of a new model from day one?

As the UI spokesperson, I join the development process at a very early stage. Shortly before the series production development of a model begins, which is a few years before market launch, I come into play and gather insights in advance. Many different units are involved in this process. This is not solitary work; rather, it is an incredibly communicative and multi-faceted task that involves a great deal of coordination. This allows me to familiarise myself with nearly the entire company, from the vehicle project to the individual specialist units to marketing and sales. In this way, we arrive at an ideal compromise that ensures the best possible results for the users. I stay involved even after the development of the model is complete: Once the new model has been on the streets for a year, we evaluate the initial feedback and take it into consideration for the next model.

The needs of passengers also play an important role for Maxi Vogel in the design of the infotainment system.
The needs of passengers also play an important role for Maxi Vogel in the design of the infotainment system.

How is your department set up?

We all have different areas of expertise. The UI department includes psychologists, human factors experts, cognitive scientists, biologists, neurologists, linguists, interaction designers and media technologists. As such, many different people are working on issues around how navigation, transmission modes and many other things can be operated more intuitively. We share information with each other, ask each other for advice, and work on the MBUX infotainment system together. We also have our own UI software that we use to share information with the product owners, who deal with software-related matters even more intensively.

What originally brought you to Mercedes-Benz?

I have always been interested in cars, and they have always been a major topic of discussion for my family as well. Technology has also fascinated me for as long as I can remember, as have the differences between what people think and what they do. After I finished my undergraduate studies in psychology, I looked for a field of application where humans and technology played a major role. This is how I arrived at the "Human Factors" program of study, which focuses directly on people as a factor in the context of technological developments. This fits perfectly with the fact that Mercedes-Benz was increasingly shifting its focus towards people in the context of vehicle development – and was looking for experts like me, whose primary task is to make cars more intuitive, in order to accomplish this.

You started out working on the specifications for various maintenance concepts at the company and were then responsible for things including the display for the G-Class and gestural interaction. Can gestures be interpreted unambiguously in an international context?

That's a very interesting topic. On the one hand, non-verbal communication is shaped very strongly by culture – which is the case for many gestures we might make automatically, for example. Gestures like these are unhelpful in the vehicle, since I could then activate processes accidentally. On the other hand, it is also a question of personality – whether someone gestures a great deal, or only very little. We make sure that users do not need to learn any new gestures. Instead, we look for neutral gestures that are not yet used. Certain movements are made by drivers naturally. Sometimes, for example, the driver will reach for the overhead light or place a bag on the passenger seat. The interior assistant recognises intuitive gestures and turns the relevant light on automatically when the hand moves towards it. This is intended to function in essentially the same way worldwide, and we only need to make slight adjustments for individual countries sometimes.

A learning system like MBUX is based on artificial intelligence and progressively adapts itself to users over time. What advantages does this offer in regard to the comfort of driving?

We want to take the burden off the users. The vehicle now increasingly supports individualised use. Not every person is the same, and neither is every driving situation. The system can learn how a user drives and operates the system situationally. If you say, "Call my boss", then it saves who the manager is, just as it would save the manager of another driver. The voice control also learns continuously in regard to aspects like distinguishing accents.

What capabilities would you consider absolutely crucial for the infotainment of the future?

I want comprehensive experiences. Not just individual displays and functions, but immersive effects where everything works together, to the extent that I can say that the car offers something totally unique and indispensable, and that each individual element contributes something to my overall experience.

For Maxi Vogel (34), who grew up near Lutherstadt Wittenberg in Saxony-Anhalt, a car most importantly represents the freedom to simply drive anywhere you want and be mobile. After reunification of east and west Germany, her family travelled mainly by car. This childhood experience made a deep impression on Maxi, now the mother of a six-year-old daughter: Even today, she loves going on road trips with her husband and child to explore different cultures and landscapes. Her passion for cars is also clear from her choice of profession. After studying psychology at the University of Göttingen, she completed a master's degree in Human Factors at the Technical University of Berlin and later applied for an open position at Mercedes-Benz.