driver cabs of the future star trek

How will trains’ driver cabs look like in the future?

How will trains’ driver cabs look like in the future? 1274 1018 Spii
driver cabs of the future star trek
A “futuristic” spaceship’s driver cab from Star Trek from the 60′

It’s not easy to answer this kind of question.

Probably future trains’ driver cabs won’t be very different, given the amount of change that they have (or better said, haven’t) endured in the past, as we have seen in this recent article.

They still look the same as 30 years ago, and may be similar decades from now.

A typical “modern” train’s driver cab

But are they the best and most ergonomic version that we could have?

Probably not. The way drivers drive today is just a result of choices made in the past, and improvements to those choices keep updating something without really changing it.

Is what we already have what we deserve?

The good news is that maybe it doesn’t need to be this way in the future, too. If we have the courage to think different, quoting someone who knew how to do so, we may be able to really disrupt the driver cab, which is instead given for granted as it is.

Things could change, if we are able to start from scratch, without moving forward from what we consider to be “correct” just because someone in the past said so.

It could be, if only we had the courage to start from an empty space, and to place a human being at its center. If we only asked what conditions may help him or her to achieve the best performance possible.

Look for what feels natural

But what does “achieve the best performance” mean, when we talk about a train driver? Probably that it should allow him or her to:

  1. easily maintain concentration for a long time; 
  2. use effectively the senses of sight, hearing and touch;
  3. take action quickly and with the lower energy consumption possible.

To achieve that, the driver’s body must be in the most natural position.

And which is that?

 Simple, for us all there are three: lying, seating and standing.

Lying down is the lowest energy consumption position for our bodies, but probably best for resting as it is not ideal to use our senses or to take action.

Standing is perfect to perform quick actions and to use our senses, but the energy consumption is high so it is not optimal for long times.

 The natural winner so is the seated position, with maybe some crucial moments when standing is preferable .

A prototype of the ideal seated position for a driver

Let’s start it over from scratch

So, let’s try together this brainstorming exercise: we have started from a blank space, and placed a human being at the centre. He or she should be seated most of the time, because it is the most natural position to perform the tasks needed, and have a choice of standing, if needed.

Now, how is the most comfortable way to sit ? On a chair, of course! Ideally an armchair, that allows to sit with an adequate back support, the correct inclination of the legs, and arms supported by armrests.

Can you think of a more comfortable seating position than this?

Our imagined driver is now seated on a fantastic chair, comfortable like the ones in a cinema.

He or she has to start using their senses and taking action.

In this position the cone of vision includes what is exactly in front of the driver: it is natural then to place what they must look at exactly there.

So it makes sense to position the windscreen in front of the driver, plus a display (what about a 100” display?) and maybe even a mixed solution with a head-up display.  

The great disruption in the driver cabs

Now, what would the best position for commands and levers be?

Picture our driver seated in the armchair: the arms are on the armrests, resting comfortably on both sides of the body.

Then shouldn’t commands be on both sides as well, where the hands naturally are?

The natural position of hands and the visual cone in the previous prototipe

Well, the picture is starting to look interesting, right?

Our driver by now is seated in an empty space, on a comfortable seat, with windscreen, display and head-up displays straight ahead, and with all the controls beside the body.

Does it look comfortable to you?
Of course it does!

It may seem trivial, but the most natural condition for driving a train is to actually look straight ahead and to have our arms where they would naturally rest.

Commands in modern trains are usually placed in front of the driver

When our past determines our future

Then why are we used to see the commands in front of the driver, instead?

To have levers and controls in front of you may seem normal. Yes, this way commands are visible and easily reachable.

But reachable and comfortable is not the same thing. 

So the traditional way we drive is normal, but not natural: again, it is not the same thing.
And it must be changed.

star trek image of a driver cab
Star Trek had already seen it all

At the end of this very simple and logical analysis, the surprise is that the ideal driver cabin of the future looks incredibly like the bridge that we have seen in Star Trek since 1966!

In other industries it is already a reality: why shouldn’t be the same in railways?

An example of this kind of driver cab from a machine used in the heavy industry
An example of this kind of driver cab from a machine used in the heavy industry

What do you think of this “revolutionary” idea? Let us know in the comments.

See you next time!
Silvio Zuffetti

drivers cab train

Are trains’ Driver Cabs designed for Drivers?

Are trains’ Driver Cabs designed for Drivers? 600 361 Spii
drivers cab train

At first it could sound like a strange question. But if you follow me until the end, you will see it is not.

Take the automotive and work machine industry for example. For many years they have been the leaders in technology-driven innovation, without considering much that the final goal was to make the user happy. 

All the decisions were driven by the applications: if you needed to move the arm of an excavator, you needed a command lever. They would then position the lever in a reasonable place in the cab, barely considering how the driver would reach it. That’s all.

The evolution towards Human Centered Design in the automotive and machine work industries

Year after year, these industries find new ways of incorporating technology into their products, to support faster, lighter, more efficient, and smarter vehicles. And its companies have slowly begun to take a more “User Centered Design” approach.

The result is a total revolution that, during the last 25 years, has finally taken into consideration the Human factor in the choices related to technology and design.

Look at how cars have changed:

During the years, the driver’s visibility has been improved by reducing the size of the frontal area and the dashboard (do you remember that the car’s hood was totally visible from the front seats until the 90s?). Moreover, commands are now where you have your hands: on the wheel and on the side.

Same story for the “heavy equipment” from the work machine industry:

In the 90s’ model, you can see that most commands are in front of the driver, and the gear levers are near the wheel. In more modern solutions all the commands are on the right side, with a double benefit: granting more visibility to the front and allowing a natural position for the driver’s hands.

As we can see, in these industries the natural evolution has led to a more human-centered design, and todays products are extremely oriented towards the well-being and the satisfaction of the driver.

Is it the same for the trains’ driver cabs, though? Let’s see:

Clearly, despite the many improvements visible, it is not.

Why isn’t the train industry so oriented towards ergonomics?

Firstly we need to consider a major difference between these industries: trains’ life is much longer than the one of cars.

Cars and heavy equipment would be completely obsolete after 25 years of usage, and the models in the pictures we saw before are separated by 4 or 5 generations of intermediate solutions. The majority of trains, on the other side, after 25 years of usage are still in service: the old one in the first picture above is just one generation older than the second, and they are currently used on the same line for the same kind of service.

As we can see, from an engineering point of view there are a lot of improvements, and also the shape and the design are more sexy. 

But from the human-centered point of view, there is still a lot to improve: the size of the frontal area is more or less the same, with no particular improvement for the driver’s visibility. And despite a semi-circular shape in the modern versions, the most important commands are still in front of the driver. 

There clearly is an important gap between the User Centered Design applications in railway and in other industries, probably due to the long life of trains.

And so we have an answer to the original “strange question”: trains’ driver cabs are not completely designed around the driver.

This doesn’t mean that they are designed in a completely wrong way, nor that they totally lack ergonomics. In fact, if you think about it, cars and work machines were used and appreciated as well, even before the changes that occurred in the 90s.

But in these industries today, the Human Factor is taken into much greater consideration, with a clear improvement in the driver conditions that result in more comfort and less stress. Which ultimately mean more safety and better performances.

So the bad news is that train drivers still have to do their work in an environment that is not fully ergonomic and adapted to their needs yet.
The good news, though, is that in the trains’ driver cab design there is a lot of space for improvement in the next generation of vehicles.

What do you think of all this? Do you have a different opinion? Which improvements would you like to see in trains’ driver cabs?
Let us know in the comments.

See you next time!