Essays & Articles


Emotional Autos


Originally published in InteriorMotives.

You are driving along, about to change lanes, when your car suddenly tenses up. The seatbelts tighten. The seat straightens up, the headrest moves forward. As you turn the wheel to the right, the car starts quivering, buzzing from the right side. “Calm down, ” you say, “I know what I’m doing. ”

A nervous, skittish car? A car distrustful of its driver? Sure, why not?

Cars are getting real personalities and emotions. No, I don’t mean the cutesy descriptions by people who look at the body lines, hood ornaments and grills. No, I mean real emotions somewhat akin to that of people and animals.

Personality and emotions have long been talked about in the design business, but usually as metaphors. Numerous companies and research laboratories are trying to determine the mood of the driver, the better to react appropriately. But I’m not talking about that either — I’m talking about giving the car real, live emotions and personality. Why? For protection. Cars that don’t want to crash. Cars that want to be serviced on a regular basis. Cars that look after their own self-interests and convey their concerns to their human drivers.

Some cars will be timid, always tensing up whenever they detect potential problems. Some will be cocky, certain that their superior reflexes will avoid skids, maintain stability, and stop in time. Cars might even second-guess drivers, so whenever the driver applies the brakes, the car would do its own assessment and might very well apply the brakes with full force, even though the driver did not. A pretty aggressive, self-confident car. (And some high-end cars already do this.)

Today cars dutifully inform the driver when they need to be serviced, when oil levels and tire pressures are low. But how should they respond when the driver ignores the warning? Suppose the brake fluid light has been on for two weeks, yet the driver doesn$rsquo;t do anything about it: Maybe the car should refuse to drive anymore, or if it does drive, always keep an extra distance between it and surrounding cars. Maybe it should be rude and bossy, perhaps calling the dealer and complaining.

I can imagine car dealers becoming matchmakers, requiring buyers to take personality tests so that they can match buyer and car appropriately. Many people are asking how cars should respond to the mood of the driver. I think the much more important question is just the converse: How will drivers respond to the moods and emotions of cars? You are lucky this column is limited in length, because my mind revels at the possibilities.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. He lives in northern California at Write him at don at