Joseph Fink was many things: Psychologist, engineer, inventor. What he wasn’t, however, was a fortune-teller.
If he was, perhaps he would have had better success selling his key patent, the seat-belt ignition interlock and alarm, to carmakers before it became a national mandate in 1973. Or he might have seen its eventual failure, one year later.
“The thing about a new technology is that it’s not what the person is using right?” said Patricia DeLucia, a psychology professor at Texas Tech University that studies how human factors affect the design of systems. “It’s not part of their habit. To make the change is difficult.”
The ignition interlock, a device that wouldn’t let drivers start the car without buckling up, is a quintessential case of why technology fails. Back in the 1970’s, only a small percentage of drivers used seat belts regularly. The interlock may not have been the government’s first choice to force belt use on an unsuspecting public, but it was a convenient one. Frankly, on its face, it’s not even a bad idea.
But, in the tricky science of designing technology for human acceptance, the history of auto safety is questionable at best. Even today, drivers will turn of advanced safety systems like lane departure warning and dynamic cruise control.
In Season 2, Episode 2 of Futurismo, “Patent No. US3359539,” we tell the story of how the interlock was born, how, in just a few years, it became the center of a national conversation, and finally we’ll learn how it failed. Engineers working on advanced safety systems today and the self-driving car of tomorrow should heed this cautionary tale, because if one truism holds true through history is that humans can be fickle users.