I Went on Police Ride Along to Learn About the Future of Automotive Design

Last month, I traveled to CES in order to sit through a day-long series of autonomous vehicle and mobility related panel discussions.  The very first one featured John Casesa, Group Director of Global Strategy at Ford Motor Company.  He discussed many things, but one in particular caught my attention.  He brought attention to the shift in culture that Ford is deliberately fostering and how that is manifesting in its design process.  “Ford is shifting from a product company to a marketing company” he stated.  Inherent in this is the move from designing & pushing sales to identifying use cases, studying how drivers interact with their car, designing to accommodate those uses and then pitching the created value to consumers.  In this talk, he specifically called out police cars as an example of this change in the design process.  Ford owns a significant portion of the police cruiser market in the US (61% in the first half of 2015) and with Tesla loaning out two cruisers to LAPD last year in a test trial, piloting this new design process with police cruisers seems an apt starting point.

I wondered what the results of this endeavor might look like.  So, I reached out to my local police department and requested a ride along.  They granted my request and I spent the morning talking with Officer Greg Hall of the University of Iowa Police Department.  Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, beginning and ending with his expression of gratitude over not getting the same ol’ same ol’: “This one time, on COPS, I saw this one thing….Have you ever…?”  Beyond that, I spent as much time as possible asking him about his squad car, what he liked, what he didn’t and why?

We drive in a Ford SUV, and while it has the appearance of being a tight fit, it’s actually quite spacious.  I ask him about all the equipment he has in the middle console.  Between the monitor (a tablet that is fixed into place), keyboard, hand-held radio and cup holders (which hold his cell phone and my coffee), there is not much space for his right arm.  There is an arm rest, but it sits at a 45° angle to his body and can be placed in an upright or down position.  There is no space for it to face straight forward. Oh, and there is a printer embedded in the arm rest.

What catches my attention is that he leaves it up and hangs his arm over it the way he would the back of a couch.  His body position is open and turned slightly in my direction.  I comment to him that that can’t be comfortable.  It’s not.  But it’s either that or sit with his hand in his lap.  He doesn’t comment on sitting with his right hand in his lap, but that position has a major drawback.  It forces him to sit facing straight forward.  Imagine sitting with your arm straight out in front of you.  If your arm crosses in front of your body, like it would when the steering wheel turns, all strength is lost in that arm.  If he had an arm rest to place his elbow on, it would be easier to steer with both hands at all times.

On the subject of comfort, “I have never been in a squad car that didn’t leave me with discomfort or pain!”  Other officers?  Everyone he knows has chronic back tightness, soreness or pain.  He points out his equipment belt.  Besides his taser and cuffs, there is a litany of other pieces.  They go all the way around his waist and dig into his lower lumbar as he sits in the driver’s seat.  “Some of my colleagues, who are overweight, they can get large enough that all their stuff can sit in front of their bellies.  Me, I don’t have that circumference.”  And so his equipment digs into his back.  He wonders why the seats don’t have a cut-out like the ones in the “cage” where there is space for cuffed hands to sit behind a person’s back.  I ask if his larger colleagues would miss the lower back support.  He doesn’t think so.

I ask him if his belt, with all that equipment, is standardized.  He tells me that it is very standard.  At one point, Kevlar vests come up.  Those vests trap so much body heat that officers often drive with their windows down in the winter.  This is important because while Ford designs vehicles, the personal protective equipment is a non-negotiable aspect of officer attire.  Together, that equipment and the car form a single customer experience.  In this case, they do not come together harmoniously and in fact cause chronic pain.  As the design process shifts towards meeting customer needs, this has to be taken into account.

Officer Hall tells me how many vehicles his forces have gone through during his eleven years as an officer.  He lists five.  His two favorites ever are the Crown Vic and the Impala.  He liked them for opposite reasons.  He referred to the Vic as an indestructible tank that handled great in a corn field.  It was large, had great handling, power and comfort.  The Impala was small, compact and felt like a racecar.  He hit 140 mph in that car once and it made him afraid.  The handling at that speed becoming irrelevant though as more forces, including ones in Iowa move to a no-pursuit policy when it comes to high speeds.  He doesn’t much like the current model.  When we stop to chat with an Iowa City PD officer, he concurs on the Vic and Impala, but states that he loves the current models.

Both officers discuss the trade-offs that come with an SUV vs a Sedan.  It is easy to get a person in custody into the Sedan but not out.  The opposite is true of the SUV models.  Both like that there are lights along the base of the SUV that highlight where a step can be used to get in the car and illuminate the ground around it.

We drive off to another spot on his route.  Since he equated a former car to a tank and brought up the dangers of high speed chases, I ask how safe the cars are in a crash.  He says that crashes happen, but never to him.  He did roll his SUV once though and mentions that it was entirely his fault.  He doesn’t give details on the roll, but offers his opinion on what would have made it safer.  His computer tablet is fastened in place, but the clipboards, papers, keyboard and radio all hit him.  “I need a pouch or something else to file my papers and clipboard in while I’m in the car.”  The best he has now is a backpack, but that will still go flying in a crash.  It wouldn’t have to be easily accessible as there is never an emergency rush to grab a standardized form.

At some point his phone rings, it’s a personal call.  UIPD uses personal cell phones for work calls too but many vehicles have embedded phones.  Then there is his radar, which he checks, the keyboard, the tablet and the radio.  “I’m supposed to ticket you for texting and driving, but look at all this stuff I’m doing.”  Police officers experience lots of distracted driving.  “My supervisor would tell you I’m not supposed to type stuff while I’m driving but everyone does it.”  This is not a behavior flaw on Officer Hall’s part, it is a design flaw.  Good design accounts for behavior.

Then we get the only call during my morning with him.  A 9-1-1 hang-up from an on-campus office.  It was nothing, but I notice that he leaves the engine running as we walk into the building.  All the extra electronics that a normal car doesn’t have eat up the battery fast.  So there is an additional battery in the car.  That is still not enough.  The car has to be left running.  All police cars have to have their engines on essentially all the time.  The police radio has to keep running.  For a K-9 unit, the air conditioning has to keep running.  He explains that every officer has their squad car die on them at some point, usually early in their career, while out on a patrol.

A couple of times, I open-endedly ask if he has anything else he wants me to know.  He wants a better gun rack.  His shotgun and assault rifle are between the two front seats and back a bit.  “A bit” is an understatement.  They are far back enough that he can’t reach them with his right arm.  He reaches for them with his left but has to crane his whole body awkwardly.  Also, it would be bad if the guns obscured his rearview mirror so they are low in the car.  Really low.  So low and with so much equipment sharing that space between the seats that the best handle he can get is by placing his palm over the opening of the barrel of his shotgun.  My whole body goes tense watching him do this.  I hope the safety is on and that it’s not loaded, but it’s not his squad car.  It’s the one he hopped into at the start of his shift.  Someone else put the guns there.

In the awkward, twisted position he is in, he has to grab near the tip of the barrel and pull forward, towards himself.  I watched him palm the barrel and understood that inevitably, every officer in his position has that barrel point in the direction of their face.  That’s just to get it out of the rack.  He hates the positioning of the rack.  Last fall, he told me there was (fake) call of an emergency shooter on campus.  He had no idea how best to handle the shotgun.  He didn’t want to get there, possibly be confronted with a shooter and then reach for the gun.  He didn’t want to drive with it loose on the seat next to him.  He didn’t want to drive with it in his lap and then potentially drive into a highly chaotic scene.  The gun could have gone off if he had crashed.  Luckily the call was fake.  He never told me how he actually handled the shotgun in that situation.  Choosing from a litany of bad decisions like that shouldn’t be his burden anyway.

When I pondered why Ford would place the rack there, he points out that maybe they didn’t.  It turns out that once the car is manufactured, most of the electronics, lights and other features are actually added by another service provider.  Not only that, but those service providers often don’t provide ongoing services after the initial installation.  In this case, that is handled by the university motor pool.  By the way, he is good friends with some of the guys in the motor pool.  Since I had a bunch of questions on fleet management, would I like to talk to them?  Of course.

What I stated in the last paragraph is important.  I already identified a mismatch between the design of the car and the protective equipment.  What’s been identified here is a discontinuity in service.  The car is designed by a manufacturer.  Then, there is another company that installs the electronics.  Lastly, the motor pool, or another mechanic service, maintains the fleet.  His mechanic friend brings up specific cases where the discontinuity in service affects them negatively.  All those electronics, mechanics aren’t trained to maintain or fix them, but are contracted to maintain and fix the cars, which includes the electronics.  That isn’t part of their training, so they learn as they go.  There are mismatches between the car design, the added electronics and how officers interact with both.  A revamped design process should take this into account.

Oh, those lights along the bottom of the SUV that both officers loved?  The ones that illuminate the step up and the ground around the car so that they and those in their custody don’t misstep?  The motor pool can’t use the forklift to raise the SUVs without crushing those light panels.  That means they have to have a pit to drive the cars over.  They do, but lots of places don’t.  That’s important.  Officer Hall used to work for a small county police department and estimates that the majority of departments in the state have only 1-7 officers and 1-2 cars.  In a place that rural, there are limited options for where to get cars maintained.  Design changes like this can necessitate that police departments change where they get their vehicles serviced.  It means that small-town service providers may lose business over a simple change in design.

As for the cars themselves, the more engine power the cars have, like twin turbo engines, the less space there is for mechanics to get into the engine.  The mechanics don’t know what to do about it.  The cars can’t get any bigger without adding serious weight.  But, to actually get at the engine, they have to take a lot of it out.  Hopefully, a policy shift away from high speed chases will decrease the impetus for more engine power.

At the conclusion of our ride, I ask him about a heads-up display (HUD).  I explain the concept, that information can be projected on the windshield in front of him, that the information is translucent and can be customized.  Does he like the idea and what would he want projected?  He loves the idea.  And he knows exactly what he wants from it.  “I want my seed and the radar speed of the car in front of me!”  That shift away from pursuing when a suspect speeds up?  He wants to know when to back off.  It’s easy to get sucked into a high speed.  70 mph can meld into 90 mph real quick and by the time it feels dangerous, it’s been dangerous for a while.

Those are the two things he wants most.  After that?  He wants a north/south compass.  “In some of these rural counties, there are very few landmarks.  You make a left and a left and a right and a left, you have no idea where you are.”  Along river choke points, with hills on either side, he said that winding, hilly roads could be especially disorienting.  Also, visibility on gravel roads in the dry summer can be treacherous.  He wants a compass.  Then he dropped me off, shook my hand and called it a day.

So what did I learn about the car of the future?  Nothing really, but I still learned a lot.  I learned that there are multiple, disparate design processes that go into creating a single consumer experience.  There is value to be created by studying the user experience of an officer before engaging in designing a car.  While the police officer is the consumer, the police force (or in this case the University of Iowa) is the customer.  The fact that design & manufacturing, upgrading with essential electronics and fleet management are all separate services with less than harmonious transitions leaves value on the table.  There is value to be created in considering the needs of a customers’ fleet management provider(s) when designing a vehicle.  As Ford moves from a manufacturer to a mobility service provider (it bought a bike share service!) the gaps in this chain of service provide opportunities that can be monetized.

I signed off with Officer Hall by telling him that nothing was going to come of this.  I would go home, write a blog post and no one would ever read it.  For what it’s worth, I will never forget that all products, no matter how well designed, exist in an ecosystem that is influenced by a plethora of other designs.  I learned that those other products, services and after-market services produce design constraints that are not negotiable.  When products are designed on a white-board, they are designed in a vacuum.  Those products will never exist in a vacuum and this has to be anticipated.

Officer Greg Hall and I discussed many things that I didn’t go into here.  We bonded over our love of South Park and Team America.  We talked about driverless cars, partial autonomy and bike sharing.  We developed a rapport to a point where I felt – had he disclosed the details of the time he rolled his cruiser and it was entirely his fault – that it might have been ok for me to make fun of him (He didn’t!  I didn’t!).  The insight he offered was concise, insightful and valuable.  I am incredibly grateful to him for accepting me and to his commanding officer for arranging the ride along.  Thank you!

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