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Automotive Simulation is Driving Toward User-Centered Design


"How does it feel?" the car salesman asks as he leans over the open driver's side door. The prospective buyer returns a few good comments as well as some concerns. The salesman then offers some consoling details about how the different features of the car will perform and ease the life of the user.

This exchange is something that automotive companies are clueing in on as they seek coveted awards such as J.D. Power. Awards like these demonstrate the voice of the consumer and are often used by prospective buyers in their purchase decision. Recognizing the customer's needs, wishes, and expectations can mean more dollars for the company.

Rise of User-Centered Design

For many years the automotive industry has been a leader in technology-driven innovation. Each year the industry finds new ways to incorporate technology to support faster, lighter, more efficient, and smarter vehicles. But with changing economic and market conditions, OEMs and manufacturers must question their traditional, technology-driven approach to engineering. Companies are beginning to take a more "Silicon Valley" approach, beginning the journey toward what some call "user-centered" engineering as they seek customer favor and buy-in.

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This user-centric approach takes inspiration from customers, considers market and technological constraints, and then seeks to build a solution that benefits the user at every interaction. This type of method focuses on asking the right questions and generating ideas in human terms. When done well, this approach fuels the creation of products that resonate with customers and that will ultimately drive engagement and growth.

Cabin Environments as Leading Differentiator

Since the cabin of the car is where the user spends most of their time, improving the cabin experience can be an area where OEM's distinguish themselvesIn light of this, human thermal sensation and comfort have become an increasingly hot topic. The comfort of your customer plays an integral role in their impression and overall satisfaction of the vehicle.

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The cabin environment is unique and many factors contribute to the user's level of comfort (or discomfort). Whether the user is warm from solar loading from a glass roof or they seek comfort from their heated steering wheel on a cold, winter morning, human thermal sensation and comfort are in designing the elements of the cabin.

Human thermal sensation and comfort simulation provides data that tells you under what conditions the occupant would be comfortable or uncomfortable. Understanding when they are uncomfortable is most important because that’s when you need to make changes. As they say “no news is good news”–the same holds true when modeling human thermal comfort. People don’t take notice when they are thermally comfortable but they do notice when they are uncomfortable.


Design with Data not Assumptions

Most importantly, simulating for comfort puts your work into the right frame of designing for the customer. Most companies design using assumptions (i.e. meeting a target air temperature) but when using thermal comfort as your guideline, you are actually designing with the customer in mind.

The trouble with designing with assumptions is that more often than not you will be leaving out important information. If your goal is to get the air temperature to be 68 degrees F, will the occupant truly be comfortable if there is considerable solar loading coming through a glass roof?human thermal simulation.png

Using assumptions also leaves out the human element. Not only does the occupant react to their environment, but they contribute to it. Have you ever gone skiing on a bluebird day only to get back in your car and have the windshield fog up immediately from all your hot breath? That's because you're contributing moisture and humidity to your environment. By modeling a human within your cabin environment, you can predict these scenarios and find solutions that exceed your customer's expectations.

Thermal Sensation & Comfort is not just for Research

While human thermal sensation and comfort are relatively new, solving for temperatures isn’t. From temperature, we can know sensation and from sensation we can understand comfort. When the simulation returns data that indicates the occupant is uncomfortable in a given environment, you can then walk back through the process to know why (sensation was too hot) and what temperature was modeled (68 degrees F). 

human thermal aerospace.jpgBased on this data you can know what type of heat transfer was at work and then use that information to formulate a new design decision.  This type of analysis allows engineers to think of the customer while still having data to make actionable design decisions. By using simulation, the engineer can also create any number reproducible scenarios to ensure the design in a variety of environments.

Can You Justify the Change

While incorporating human thermal simulation into your design process is sure to rock the boat, can you afford to stay where you are? With the industry changing, those who lead the charge are more likely to discover the best ways to combine their heritage of technology-driven insight with a consumer-minded design. These are the companies that will rise to the top as market and economic conditions continue to alter the way your customers make purchases.

If you know you need to start looking for ways to innovate, start with our basic recipe for success:

  1. Benchmark your current process
  2. Use past data to understand your current design's perceived thermal sensation and comfort
  3. Compare the model to a reproducible measurement (ex: thermal manikins)
  4. See how close simulation and test data compare
  5. Use simulation to understand how design changes affect occupant comfort

This type of process allows you to see just how close simulation will get to the test data and allow you to make directional design decisions based off of your findings.

Take small steps to incorporate a process that focuses on “user-centered” design. Learn how you can continue to delight customers while still meeting the ever-tightening restrictions for new technologies. Simulation can help you visualize the ways you can do more with less – to create the most efficient yet highly-rated cabin for your customers.

cabin comfort technical paper

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