Engineers like Larry Smythe spend their days thinking about the human form and how it interacts with what we drive.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Larry Smythe works for Nissan as a Principal Engineer in the Human Engineering Department. I know, I didn't understand what that meant either, but after a fascinating conversation with Smythe, I learned that there is a whole facet of engineering that goes beyond making mechanical things.
Smythe works with human factors. That is, he works with the physical ergonomics of cars as it relates to driver positioning, vision and reach. If you've ever been in a Nissan Pathfinder and felt that the infotainment system controls were in the perfect spot, thank Smythe.
Further, Smythe focuses on cognitive engineering, studying how people learn to use electronic products through vision, shapes and colors.
Smythe is a Detroit native with many initials after his name. B.S. in Liberal Arts from Wayne State University, M.A. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Detroit and most recently, Ph.D in Education, Technology and Learning from Alliant International University in San Diego. He grew up working in the trades in tool and die shops and even spent time on the production line as a spot welder at Chrysler.
I chatted on the phone with Smythe about his career in optimizing human comfort in cars as well as the up-and-coming facet of cognitive engineering
What was your first car?
A 1963 VW Beetle. It was not in very good shape so I rebuilt the 40-horsepower engine, did all the bodywork and painted it. I had to rebuild the engine probably once every six months because I used to do road rallies with it.
What was your first automotive job and how did you get it?
In college, I volunteered to be a test subject in the engineering school for an experiment involving traffic sign recognition for exits. I liked it so much I worked for free in the engineering lab, then worked for a few years designing and building SAE-sponsored (Society of Automotive Engineers) research equipment. Eventually I got hired by General Motors. I was a human factors engineer supporting the design studios for seating, controls and display, entry and exit. It's all about understanding how to help designers go where they want to go.
Designing any product, you start with an idea. You capture the basic shape for the function you wish to provide, then some of the sizes have to be modified in order to fit the human hand, let's say. Like button size for finger tips or designing exterior door handles so that women don't break their fingernails. It's about creating a door opening that can allow not just Joe Q. Public to get in the car, but also people with special needs. You have to think about people who get in a car from a wheelchair or someone who uses a cane.
Take me through an average day at Nissan.
It's very eclectic, which fits my personality to a T. I'm the US delegate expert to the International Standards Organization and Chair of Controls and Display Committee so I may be talking to someone from Germany or Sweden or Japan. I'm also very involved with the SAE so I'm involved with standards development. I might evaluate a competitive vehicle for its controls and displays or its lane keep assist. I might evaluate entry/exit of our own vehicles. It changes every day. There really is no dull day.
What's the most tedious thing about your job?
Writing reports. I normally have so many other things going on I just want to finish it so I can get on with something else. My reports are essentially the results of research or an evaluation or competitive product analysis. I've done research about trust in automation, trust in cruise control, where and when do people use cruise control. A report might be a competitive vehicle analysis of Car A to Car B of how easy it is to find and set a radio station. Some of the research I've done for autonomous vehicles is about the personal space that drivers leave around them while in a traffic jam or making a left turn. What's the physical space that is around a vehicle?
Nissan's IMx Concept is a futurethink Tokyo Motor Show SUV
How does technology affect the future of your job?
It provides more opportunity. The interesting thing about my job is that human factors always involves the physical aspects of vehicles: entry/exit, vision, reach, touch. Controls and displays started to get more sophisticated in the 80s and at GM we started to make LCD displays with push buttons around it. Now my job has transitioned into the cognitive space and understanding a driver's belief system when they are exposed to new technologies. How do drivers believe technology works compared to how it actually works? What is it that we can do as human factors engineers to make it simple, quick, certain and trustworthy? My dissertation topic was measuring learning beliefs, how someone's unconscious beliefs about electronic products influence their learning experience.
What automotive trend makes your blood boil?
Nothing. I just don't think like that, I guess. The development of all this new tech is really catching my attention. We are transitioning from a direct connection to the vehicle and what you can see around you to the situational awareness of remote sensing. For instance, with vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure, we as human factor engineers have to figure out how to provide this information to the driver so they can understand, "Oh there's a traffic signal that's going to turn red that I can't see." What's interesting is that drivers are going to be doing this with other people all around them.
It's kind of like being in an orchestra. Everyone has the same goal, but you're aware of everyone else. While you're doing your part, you're cognizant of the things you're doing, the things your partner is doing, what the orchestra is doing, the conductor and maybe actually paying a little attention to someone out in the audience. That cognitive task of situational awareness is one of the most intriguing things that I am running into these days.
What's the one project you've always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to?
That's a good question. I would like to work on flight deck ergonomics with Boeing. I was offered the opportunity in the mid-80s but I decided to stay at GM. That would be really fun to design aircraft flight deck ergonomics and controls.
If you weren't working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?
Through high school and college I worked as a musician. I played sax and clarinet. I enjoyed being a musician but I didn't like the hours. I don't like staying up that late. I'm 67 years old and I'll probably change some of my activities as years go on but I really like what I do.