Innovation and the power of a train drivers’ community

Innovation and the power of a train drivers’ community 1024 576 Spii

We ended our latest technical article on “How to include train drivers in the design process” with a rather open question: how can you overcome all the problems and obstacles that obstruct the way towards a true User Centered Design (UCD) of train desks?

How can you really involve train drivers, the actual users, in the design process, overcoming the limits given by time, space and limited resources?

If you remember, though, we also gave you a peak into our answers: we need to make good use of the last and most evolved digital innovations.

This can be done in two ways: one is creating new innovative solutions, and it’s the direction we are working on with ItalDesign and our incredible V-Desk.

The other one is leveraging on the existing solutions, bending them to our needs towards a “social innovation”.

Today I want to tell you more about this second kind.

It all starts with a question

We started from traditional driver desks, from a console that identified us as a manufacturer of train parts.
In time, we raised our mission to man-machine interfaces that adapt to everything, a new kind of ergonomic products that opened up new scenarios: everything became possible.

A new question popped out in our heads: “what if…?”.

We understood it was not just about updating our main product, it was time to actually restart from scratch.

We wanted to challenge ourselves, our competitors and our clients.

To guide them into worlds they could not have imagined, with the courage to ignore outdated paradigms, but without totally destroying them. We wanted to connect with what already was, without precluding new worlds that we couldn’t even imagine.

So, when we started the process of designing IntelliArm, we didn’t know much.
We just had this epiphany: that we couldn’t give anything for granted.

The way things had been done until now was not clearly the best in terms of ergonomics. They were what we believed to be the only options just because no one had ever tried something different (except for Star Trek, of course).

So we knew we needed to start from scratches. From a blank space, at which center we had to place a human being, to start designing around him or her.

Not just any human being, though: we needed a train driver.
Possibly we needed more than one, so that we could confront different opinions, bodies, ways of driving, etc.

But where could we found them? And how could we convince them to offer us their practical knowledge and to spare their precious time informing our design choices?

We realized that we had the answer before our eyes.

A powerful tool at our fingertips

What am I talking about, you ask? Simple: the social networks.

Where else can you find hundred, thousands, possibly millions of people who have exactly the characteristics that you need? Where else can you interact with them as if they were one, asking them to express their opinion and listening to their voices?

We were lucky enough to have this amazing opportunity at our fingertips: SPII’s community online is strong, cohesive and engaged. The visitors from our website span to almost every Country in the world.

SPII’s LinkedIn profile in particular had grown over the years organically, counting thousands and thousands of followers from all over the World. They span among train drivers, train managers, train crew, technical personnel and so on.

We had seen it over the years, through their comments, their social shares and the technical answers they gave to our posts. We knew they had something to say.

A comment on one of our articles

This is why we did the simplest thing, something that no one had done before: we just asked them what they wanted to improve.

We wanted to lead the way.
But they needed to tell us where to go.

We didn’t know the answers…but we did know the questions!

Use the tools you already have wisely

So, we had our human being(s). We just needed the tools to listen to them and put them at the center of our design.

Wait, we had the tools! LinkedIn allowed us to do something really powerful: polls.

So we started creating polls at every step of the way, to verify and inform our choices about IntelliArm’s design.

One of our Polls on LinkedIn

The answers were extraordinary.
We knew we were on to something.
So we kept questioning.

People clearly had something to say. And they wanted to say it, eventually!

Suddenly we were swimming in comments and feedback on what was wrong and what needed improvement, directly from the people who would know it best.

We let these informations lead the way at every step of our design process, and when we were done, we knew we had something really disruptive. Not so much as to be frightening, but just enough to be a real change in the industry.

What we didn’t know was if the community of train workers would agree with us.

So we asked them.

Innovation is a delicate thing

You need to push the boundaries of what is known and is working, but not so much that people will not follow you because they are scared.

When a community of thousands of train staff confirmed our theory, we knew we had done it right.

And the success of IntelliArm, including prizes like the Red Dot we were awarded with, definitely confirmed it.

We knew it was not only a design exercise, or a new product development.
It was the beginning of a new era for the industry, one where we could change the rules of the game. 

We pictured a future that involves the users in the creation process. And we made it real.

One where the design process is bent to the human being at its center, as stated in our Vision.

Just wait and see what this “social innovation” will do when combined with “hard innovations” like V-Desk…

Until then…

See you next time,
Ilaria Cazziol


How to include train drivers in the design process?

How to include train drivers in the design process? 1024 683 Spii

The conclusions of the previous article on this topic was somehow on a middle ground: we established that including train drivers in the design process of train cabs could be a plus, if done well, but it could also end up in more confusion if managed poorly.

So, the real question is not if it is or it isn’t a good idea to do so. What really matters is HOW to do that. And we want to try and answer it here.

The difference between What and How

To fully see my point, let me start with a story.

Ferrari has been a myth all over the world since it was born, in 1929. 

But at its beginnings, in the 90s, the results achieved in Formula 1 were very poor. Then, the great Michael Schumacher, 2 times World Champion, accepted to become the new pilot of “La Rossa”.

It was not an abrupt change. Results didn’t skyrocket immediately, but year after year the improvement in performance started to be visible, and it gradually led to winning the first World Championship of the “Schumacher’s era”, in the year 2000. 

At that time, I was a mechanical engineering student in Italy: it was simply impossible to resist the charm of this masterpiece of red technology, passion and great results. But this great story of change and success, as the media reported it, was mostly about Schumacher.

Newspapers and other media contributed to the myth of this super German driver, with his scientific approach to fitness and a great level of mechanical knowledge.

The common idea then was for Michael Schumacher to be the best pilot mainly because he was able to instruct the Ferrari engineers on how to improve the car. In this opinion, the technological advancements performed were the result of his ability to “design” it.

One day, two very relevant designers from the Ferrari’s team came to my University, for a typical meeting between top class companies and engineering students. Just the day before, Michael Schumacher and his team mate, Ruben Barrichello, had finished first and second in a championship race, with an incredible performance.

After the presentation of their incredible job, there was space for the usual Question and Answer session.

At that point, one irreverent and very straightforward student asked unabashedly: “what’s your job if Michael Schumacher tells you all there is to do to the car?

A great, embarrassed silence fell over the audience. But the designers gave us an answer that, for me, has been more useful than a lot of other things I learnt in the very same room:

“Michael Schumacher is the best pilot in the world, but he is not an engineer and he doesn’t understand a lot of technical solutions. He never tells us what we have to do.

He is the best because, when he gets out of the car at the end of a race, he is really able to tell us WHAT exactly happens in there: ‘in that curve I had this kind of oversteer, in that other I felt a vibration on the front-right wheel’ and so on.

He gives us a complete overview of the situation, and he explains perfectly WHAT he needs. Understanding HOW to do that, however, HOW to improve the performance, HOW to meet his needs…that is our job”.

In that moment, and ever since then, I fully understood what a great difference there is between WHAT and HOW, especially in the design process.

Photo by Martin King on Unsplash

A proverbial example of User Centered Design

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, Usercentered design (UCD) is an iterative design process in which designers focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process.

In UCD, design teams involve users throughout the design process via a variety of research and design techniques, to create highly usable and accessible products for them. 

The story about Schumacher and the designers from Ferrari it is a perfect example of this: the user does his job, which is to use and report WHAT happened. The designers then, thanks to their unique knowledge in the field, can decide HOW to best operate.

Back to our question: how can we include Train Drivers?

It should be clear right now. Including Train Drivers in the design process is not just a matter of “asking for opinions”.

Applying a real UCD process means involving drivers in different ways and at different stages of the process.

  • First of all it is very important to fully understand the real needs of the users. In this phase, the “ideal” situation is to have many “Schumacher-style” train drivers, who are able to explain WHAT is needed. At this point, it is essential to include the drivers, but especially to ask them the right questions.
  • The second phase is one of brainstorming, in which it is important to evaluate all the possible solutions in order to match the needs. In this phase, creativity, courage, and maybe even a pinch of madness are mandatory to explore new possibilities. Train drivers could well be included at this stage, but also people with a completely different set of experiences and skills. The goal is to explore all the possibilities of HOW to do things.
  • The third phase is for Engineers and Designers only: their job is to translate the results of the previous brainstorming into technical solutions, ergonomics parameters and styling designs. Clearly at this stage only highly specialized professionals are needed. It is the definition of the real and concrete HOW.
  • The last phase is the validation of the new design: here it is important to include a relevant group of Train drivers. “Relevant” means an inclusive team with women and men, tall and short people, slim and oversized ones, right-handed and “lefties”. It must be representative of the complete population of the drivers.

It is a crucial moment, in which needs meet solutions, and each WHAT finds its HOW.

Ideally, in a World with unlimited time and resources, we can wrap up the process as it follows:

  1. Understand the real needs from the drivers (defining the WHAT);
  2. Brain-storming (all the possible HOW);
  3. Propose solutions matching the actual needs (design the HOW);
  4. Test the solutions with a representative group of drivers (match HOW with WHAT).

Unfortunately the World is not perfect: resources are limited, time is never enough and train drivers can’t spend their precious time in brainstorming and free of charge consultancy with the industry of train makers. Moreover, testing new solutions in the way saw above requires expensive mockups.

And so what ? Is there a way to include drivers in the design process, or not?

It would seem impossible, and the history of our industry, which mostly avoided inclusion in its processes, would confirm it.

the impossibile
Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

It Always seems Impossible, until it is done

We, however, did not agree.

We got to the conclusion that including train drivers in a UCD process for designing new train cabs, would be a great opportunity to improve the working conditions of the drivers.

Clearly, to do so, we needed to overcome some obstacles:

  1. Time: while creating a project for a new train delivery there is a strict timeline and not much time for experimenting new solutions;
  2. Involving drivers is not so easy, due to lack of time and logistics complications (the factory could be in another Country);
  3. Mockups require huge investments in time and money.

A Zen Proverb says that “obstacles do not block the way. They are the way”, and so we decided to work hard to find a sustainable path.

Our answer? We believe it is using the last and most evolved digital innovations. This means leveraging everyday technologies like social media, but also creating disruptive ones that can help us overcome previous unsolvable problems.

Regarding the first matter, we are creating an inclusive social community on Linkedin to involve drivers, solving time and logistics limits. There, thousands of train drivers are already connected and interact daily with us from all over the World.

We believe this is the a key step for real UCD in train cabs. A simple and straightforward way to collect needs, get feedbacks and obtain the information needed to develop new, innovative solutions.

The second key step will be, as we said, a very disruptive technology for testing and validating HMI solutions.
But this is another story, and we will get back to it with detailed information soon.

What do you think of this idea? Would you be available to contribute to the design of new train’s cab by taking part in a survey, a video-call or a focus group?
Let us know in the comments below.

See you next time,
Silvio Zuffetti

old car and horse

The advantages of including train drivers in the design process (or maybe not?)

The advantages of including train drivers in the design process (or maybe not?) 1600 857 Spii
What would happen if Ford had asked people what they wanted? Probably…this!

Fun fact: more often than not, the people who will actually use an object are not the same that design it. This is true in almost every human activity, but in most of them designers have some sort of connection with the final users – be it surveys, opinions, and so on.

Unfortunately, train design is not one of them. This is why, as we already found out, trains are not designed for train drivers.

In the design of a new Train Cab, and in particular for the creation of a Driver Desk, Train Drivers are not always included in the evaluation.

What is the reason for this? And above all, is it a good idea?

Why including Train Drivers in the design process would be a good idea 

Train drivers are the final users of the Driver Desk. These ladies and gentlemen spend many hours every day in the train cab. It is simply their place of work. As for every office, it is where they take decisions, feel emotions, exercise their abilities. And it is a place they may like or dislike to be in.

For all these reasons train cabs should definitely be designed for them. Actually, driver desks should probably be designed WITH them! They are the people who know best what they need to operate there, after all.

So it would seem like a good idea to involve them in the design process: to ask opinions, collect experiences and advice from those who will be using the product everyday.  


Why including Train Drivers can be a bad idea 

Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Instead, he made a car.

If Steve Jobs had asked people what they wanted, they would have said smaller mobile phones with a greater battery-life.

Instead, he made the iPhone.

Innovators are people who can see things that others don’t, and make them a reality that everyone wants.

So, what about train drivers? What do they want?

Some years ago, I was part of the team involved in the design and development of a new tram car’s driver desk, which would serve the public transport in an important European city. The team included the train builders and the city’s operating engineers.

It was not my first project, but the first time drivers were directly included in the process.

At the beginning I was persuaded that it was a great opportunity for some real innovation, based on the actual needs of the drivers. But instead, they chose a totally different approach: they pushed in the direction of a very conservative project.

The reason was simple: the previous driver desk had been in use for 40 years, so the drivers were used to drive it. Choosing a design that aligned with that would give the project a faster and higher chance to receive a positive response.

Based on this clear requirement, we developed a new driver desk very similar to the previous. During the process we did three design reviews, with three different drivers.

I will name them simply Driver 1, Driver 2 and Driver 3.

They were all very experienced, clever and nice: there is nothing to blame about their professional approach.

The insidious path of following what people want

When Driver 1 sees the first mockup, he is immediately confident with the well known design. He makes some useful comments, and suggests to move the blu push-button from the right side to the left side. So we do.

When Driver 2 sees the second mockup, he enjoys the design he is used, too. And suggests to move the blu push-button from the left to the right.

When it was Driver 3’s turn to express his opinion, guess what? He immediately asked why the blu push-button was on the right and not on the left.

The end of the story is that, obviously, the “new” design was approved. We had met the deadline and drivers had formally been included in the process.

Great Result!

But was it?

The truth is that, from a technical, ergonomics and style perspective, we had created a “new” driver desk that was fully equivalent to the previous one.
Designed 40 years earlier.

So really it was not the best we could aim at.

Imagine if Henry Ford had made a new horse saddle instead of a car.
Or if Steve Jobs had created a new Nokia-like mobile phone. 

Innovation is not compromise. Innovation is…well, innovation.


Now we have to answer the initial question: is the inclusion of the drivers in the design process positive or negative?

Despite the story above, I have no doubts about the answer: yes, it could be a great advantage!

It could be very helpful because they have all the information about the real needs of the final user in action.

Engineers and designers need them in order to really do a great job.

But it’s not just about involvement: it’s more about how you do it. It’s crucial to determine in which way they should be included, in order to grant the best possible result.

So a new important question arises: how can we best include drivers in the design process?

It is not easy to answer, but we’ll try to do that in the next article.

See you next time,
Silvio Zuffetti

The future at your fingertips

The future at your fingertips 2560 1440 Spii

As a designer, I have always dreamt of creating products that are not just an aesthetic cover for a technological content, but rather a real integration between form and technology, at the service of the tangible needs of the individual. 

Man is the key to everything, the sun which designers should revolve around.

But very often we forget it during the design phase, and we create increasingly complex but hardly usable solutions, driven by the desire for beauty at any cost. 

In SPII we have tried to go beyond the canonical technology-driven approach and towards a more judicious design-driven project, where the human is not only the recipient but also part of the entire development process.  We had a clear goal: to create a product that could host the best technologies in the HMI field, but with a simplified interaction, an intelligent spatial distribution of commands, and maximum ergonomic comfort.

IntelliArm was born embracing this philosophy: it aims to be a mechatronic extension of the human arm. 

An interface where the physical feedback to the user is as important as the digital feedback to the machine. Where comfort is used to satisfy the need to feel in command of the entire system. A dynamic and flexible human-machine interface, that adapts and recalibrates quickly and easily according to the customer and the target market.

Completely customisable

The idea that drove the development of the IntelliArm architecture was to create a single structural platform which could implement different functions, according to the needs of the end customer. 

Needs that range from the integration of different varieties of commands to the implementation of various HMI interfaces, to the search for a unique tailor-made shape and style

The goal is to create each time the right combination, where shape welcomes ergonomics, and it is all strongly combined with technology.

Easy to install

For obvious reasons of space, the control desks are currently installed during the construction of the driver’s cabin: this entails technical risks and poor accessibility when maintenance is needed. Thanks to its simplified structure, which was optimised to reduce the size of the internal components IntelliArm can be easily installed even after the completion of the cabin, and it grants total accessibility for maintenance.

The HCD (Human Centered Design) approach

IntelliArm has been entirely developed around the real needs of the main user, at the centre of any design decision. 

We tried to combine the know-how acquired in years of design with the validation granted by usability tests carried out on train drivers, to correctly answer the ergonomic needs of a person while driving a train.
The spatial arrangement of the controls facilitates truly hands-on accessibility, and a dedicated study allowed us to position the most frequently used buttons in easy-reach areas.
Moreover, the bulky frontal components have been optimised to favour visibility for the driver. Improving driving comfort, the user accumulates less stress and remains more alert, thus increasing safety on board the train.

Efficiency and maintenance effectiveness

Reduced space requirements and a vertically developed structure mean that all internal components can be reached easily and without great difficulty. It is simple to disassemble, resulting in a drastic reduction in maintenance time, and therefore in unrivalled efficiency.

Technological progress brings real advantages only if different kind of users can easily understand and exploit it. 

This is the reason why human-machine interfaces were created: to act as a bridge between the user’s senses and the intrinsic complexity of the machine. 

Attempting to translate and simplify the complexity of a product without depriving it of its meaning is the most difficult phase of a project like this. Success is determined not only by the overall product efficiency and effectiveness, but also by the simplicity of use and the emotional experience it grants.

Today we are trapped in a world created by technologists for other technologists. We have even been told that ‘being digital’ is a virtue. This is not true: individuals are analogue, not digital; biological, not mechanical.” cit. Donald Norman – The Invisible Computer.

For me, when I develop a product, this famous sentence by the American psychologist and engineer Donald Norman has become a sort of moral code. This is the standard to which I judge and review the design, after each completed HMI project. 

If you end up complicating the experience, it means you haven’t understood the real purpose of this job: to navigate into an ocean of technological innovations, untangling their complexities in order to filter and combine them into a product easily understood by humans.  

IntelliArm is the result of this process: it is the first control platform created with the user and engineered for the user, a true extension of its arm to bridge the gap to the complexity of the world around us.

See you next time,
Lorenzo Olivetto

Il futuro a portata di mano

Il futuro a portata di mano 2560 1440 Spii

Come designer, ho sempre sognato di creare dei prodotti che non siano solo un insieme di pelli estetiche attorno ad un contenuto tecnologico ma che fossero realmente un’integrazione reale tra forma e tecnologia al servizio dei bisogni tangibili dell’individuo.

L’uomo, la chiave di tutto, il soggetto che molto spesso durante la fase progettuale dimentichiamo a favore dell’implementazione di tecnologie sempre più complesse ma difficilmente utilizzabili, spinti dal desiderio di sponsorizzare ad ogni costo l’investimento tecnologico dell’utilità sempre più vacillante.

In SPII abbiamo provato ad andare oltre al canonico approccio technology driven verso una più oculata progettazione design driven dove l’uomo non è solo il destinatario ma anche parte dell’intero processo di sviluppo.  L’obiettivo prefissato era quello di creare un prodotto che potesse ospitare le migliori tecnologie in ambito HMI al servizio di un’interazione più semplificata, di una distribuzione spaziale dei comandi intelligente e a portata di mano oltreché di massimizzare il comfort in termini ergonomici.

Intelliarm nasce abbracciando questa filosofia, diventare un’estensione meccatronica del braccio umano, una sorta di interfaccia in cui l’importanza del feedback analogico verso l’uomo è al pari di quello digitale verso la macchina e dove il comfort di utilizzo si mischia con la reale necessità di potersi sentire al centro di comando dell’intero sistema.

Un’interfaccia uomo-macchina dinamica e flessibile che si adatta e si riconfigura in maniera rapida ed agevole in base al cliente e al mercato di riferimento verso cui verrà destinato.

Completamente customizzabile

L’idea alla base dello sviluppo dell’architettura IntelliArm è stata quella di creare una piattaforma strutturale unica sulla quale poter implementare le funzionalità più disparate in base alle esigenze del cliente finale.

Esigenze che spaziano dall’integrazione di diverse varietà di comandi all’implementazione di differenti tipologie di interfacce HMI, alla ricerca di una forma e di uno stile tailor made unico, per creare ogni volta un giusto connubio in cui la forma accoglie l’ergonomia e si sposa realmente con la tecnologia.

Facilmente installabile

Per ovvi motivi di ingombro attualmente i banchi di manovra vengono installati durante la realizzazione della cabina di comando con tutto ciò che ne consegue per quanto riguarda rischi tecnici e scarsa accessibilità in caso di manutenzioni successive.

Grazie alla struttura semplificata ed ottimizzata sulla riduzione dell’ingombro dei componenti interni, Intelliarm può essere installato agevolmente anche a cabina terminata e manutenuto con un’accessibilità a 360°.

Approccio HCD (Human Centered Design)

L’intero sviluppo di IntelliArm è stato pensato mettendo al centro della progettazione le esigenze reali dell’utente principale.

Abbiamo cercato di condensare il know-how acquisito in anni di progettazione e validazione tramite test di usabilità svolti sull’utente principale, massimizzando quelle che sono le esigenze ergonomiche di un driver durante la guida di un convoglio ferroviario.

La disposizione spaziale dei comandi ha privilegiato una raggiungibilità realmente a portata di mano con uno studio dedicato nel creare zone ad azionamento diretto per quei comandi utilizzati più frequentemente. L’alloggiamento dei componenti frontali più ingombranti è stato ottimizzato favorendo il concetto di visibilità frontale del driver.

Migliorando il comfort di guida l’utente accumula meno stress e rimanendo più vigile aumenta inevitabilmente la sicurezza a bordo del treno.

Efficienza ed efficacia manutentiva.

La riduzione degli ingombri ed una geometria sviluppata verticalmente portano a raggiungere tutti i componenti interni in maniera agevole e senza grosse difficoltà. Una grande facilità di smontaggio si traduce in una riduzione drastica dei tempi di intervento e quindi un’efficienza manutentiva senza eguali.

L’avanzamento tecnologico porta reali vantaggi se e solo se può essere capito e sfruttato da molteplici soggetti senza grandi difficoltà. Le interfacce uomo-macchina nascono per questo, fanno da ponte tra i sensi propri dell’utente e la complessità intrinseca della macchina.

Tentare di tradurre e di semplificare la complessità di un prodotto senza privarlo del suo significato è un compito che può sembrare semplice ai più ma che in realtà è la fase più ardua di un progetto. Il raggiungimento di tale scopo ne decreta il successo che si manifesta non solo da un punto di vista di efficienza ed efficacia di prodotto ma anche da un punto di vista di fluidità e completezza emozionale dell’esperienza vissuta.

“Oggi siamo intrappolati in un mondo creato da tecnologi per altri tecnologi. Ci è stato persino detto che “essere digitali” costituisce una virtù. Non è vero: gli individui sono analogici, non digitali; biologici non meccanici.” cit. Donald Norman – Il computer invisibile.

Per me che mi occupo di sviluppo prodotto questa celebre frase dello psicologo ed ingegnere statunitense Donald Norman è diventata come una sorta di legge scritta sulla quale basare la design review a valle di ogni progetto HMI portato a termine. Complicare l’esperienza vuol dire assumersi la responsabilità di non aver compreso il reale scopo di questo mestiere che naviga continuamente in acque intricate da innovazioni tecnologiche e che deve necessariamente sbrogliare la matassa per filtrare e condensare i contenuti in un prodotto facilmente recepibile dall’uomo. 

Intelliarm è frutto di questo percorso, è la prima piattaforma di comando creata con l’utente e ingegnerizzata per l’utente, una vera estensione di comando verso la complessità del mondo che ci circonda.

Alla prossima puntata,
Lorenzo Olivetto

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!

driver human machine interface

The future of transportation: will the driver become useless?

The future of transportation: will the driver become useless? 1080 720 Spii

Autonomous cars, driverless trains, remotely controlled excavators: everyday new tests and applications on the field show how the sci-fi future described by Isaac Asimov in the ’60s is quickly becoming our present. With a growing number of questions we will need to give an answer to.

One of the most compelling ones is probably this: will we still need drivers in the future?

“Autonomous” means a lot of different things


Autonomous cars are improving day by day. There are a lot of technical, legal and ethical issues at stake, but it is just a matter of time now: sooner or later, we will have self driving cars on our streets.

But what does “autonomous” mean?
In any possible scenario, it seems most unlikely to find in the next decades completely autonomous cars driving on the street without any kind of human control.

They will probably need to be equipped with a Human Machine Interface, at least to handle extraordinary situations, like an emergency. And, clearly, someone able to drive it at the wheel.

Trains are a different story

A lot of cities in the world are already provided with driverless metro trains today.

Instead of the drivers’ cab at the top, there is just a panoramic windscreen through which passengers can look at the approaching tunnel. 

All these trains are “autonomous” meaning that they are fully automatic in their basic functions: traction, braking, stop and start, door opening and closing, and so on. But they are still monitored by a human, who is not on board but located in a separate control station.

It is not a remote driving mode, because trains are controlled by automatic systems.
But it is just a matter of words: people that monitor moving trains are or are not drivers?

All driverless trains also hide a Human Machine Interface “somewhere” for emergency and maintenance duties (like the Portable Driver Desk in the picture above). These kind of interfaces need to be very “friendly” for everyone to easily use them: no licensed technicians, no high qualified train drivers, just someone who randomly has to use them in order to drive in exceptional circumstances.

What will the future look like for drivers?

But there is much more to autonomous driving than this.

For example, a Korean company has just performed a test of a remotely controlled excavator from a distance of 8.500 km, using 5G technology.


Amazing and impressive.

 The “driver” controls the machine from some office far away.  The idea is to use this kind of technology to control industrial machines in dangerous areas and for remote training. But it is easy to imagine the next possible steps, such as using one controller for multiple machines, combined with artificial intelligence to improve performances.

In any case, they will need a workstation designed for the driver’s remote control.

With new challenges to meet: on one side the driver will have “improved capabilities”, on the other he will need “improved senses”. Augmented and Virtual reality for “immersive” remote work may be the answer.

There are more than 1,3 million kms of railway lines in the world and approximately 180 cities with metro systems.
For the most part, they are not driverless. 

It makes sense to build new lines based on driverless technology, but to convert existing lines it’s a different story: it is very expensive and hardly efficient.

High speed and long distance trains are more or less in the same conditions, with the need to have someone on board to manage possible emergencies. 
As for cargo fleet, there are tests running around the world at the moment with pretty much the same outcome.

CONCLUSIONS: the evolution of the driver’s role

In the future we will probably face a mix of manual, assisted and fully automatized systems.

So, here lays the answer to our original question: the drivers’ role will need to evolve, but it will be at least as important as today. Probably more, because they will need to be ready to manage more complex situations. 

The truth is that driving in the driver’s cab, monitoring the situation from a control room or remotely controlling a machine are all different ways of driving.

There is and there will always be a clear common factor: the human has to interact with the machine.

The way of driving will evolve, and the “driver’s cab” of the future will be a highly technological workstation (not necessarily on board).
The challenge will be to provide this technology with the great improvements of ergonomics and style needed to create the best possible conditions for humans to work.

What do you think of this forecast? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments.

See you next time!

Image of spii product Master Controller

Il valore si crea con partnership di valore

Il valore si crea con partnership di valore 1000 600 Spii

L’azienda SPII di Saronno progetta e realizza apparecchiature per veicoli ferroviari, tra cui in particolare banchi manovra e dispositivi di comando.

Dal 2015 fa parte del Gruppo tedesco Schaltbau GmbH, come eccellenza italiana a respiro internazionale e centro di competenza per Master Controller ed HMI.

Leader tecnologica nel proprio settore, avanzata nell’organizzazione e gestione dei processi, Spii rappresenta un modello di business che all’unicità della specificità di un prodotto sofisticato di nicchia, unisce un Dna che precorre sempre l’innovazione con una perseveranza esponenziale.

Per comprendere i meccanismi che ne fanno un’eccellenza di cui portare vanto, abbiamo intervistato il CEO D.ssa Paola Foiadelli e l’Ing. Silvio Zuffetti, Chief Technical & Operation Officer.

Scarica l’intervista completa alla D.ssa Paola Foiadelli e l’Ing. Silvio Zuffetti, rispettivamente CEO e Chief Technical & Operation Officer di SPII Spa cliccando su questo link.

Softech – Software & Technology Srl
Politecnico di Milano