Dear engineers: No more clever gizmos, please
Every time I make a lane change in a BMW, I feel like an idiot.
It's a blinker thing. When I turn the left indicator off, I somehow
activate the right one. I end up clicking the stalk up and down a half
dozen times, not so much announcing a turn as that I'm a schizophrenic
tourist with commitment issues.
As it turns out, once a Bimmer blinker is on, you tap the stalk to
cancel it rather than pushing it the opposite direction, as in other cars.
Dear engineers: Redesigning the blinker is not clever. It's annoying.
It's one example of idiosyncrasies that drive owners nuts. Every
carmaker has wonky design foibles, almost always the case of engineer
over-think, lawyer interference or an automaker just not paying attention.
Sometimes it's a matter of poor placement of a control. Mercedes-Benz
puts a long column on the left side of the steering wheel that looks
like the blinker but is actually the cruise control -- a function I use
as often as an electric turkey carver. (The blinker is the less obvious
stick just below it.)
To make matters worse, this is no simple cruise control. Mercedes'
Distronic Plus maintains a certain distance between you and other cars,
even bringing you to a stop in stalled traffic. So after unwittingly
turning it on, I feel like I've activated the people-killer Skynet
system from the "Terminator" movies.
Next gripe is for the U.S. automakers. We know your phalanx of attorneys
are worry-warts, but please stop with all those electronic gongs, beeps
and buzzing chimes that come when we open doors, insert keys or don't
put our seatbelts on in record time.
My father's 2008 GMC Sierra pickup makes more electronic noises than
R2-D2 in "Star Wars." Lucky for dad that his hearing is iffy, as it
drove me to the brink. For heaven's sake, I know the door is open -- I'm
After a week in the Ford Fiesta, I was convinced that Ford put together
a focus group to determine the most annoying noises known to man. The
less-than-dulcet tones that come with opening a door actually made me
nostalgic for the 1980s-era cars which robotically announced, "Your door
(Incidentally, the most tolerable auditory alert comes from BMW, a light
gong that is musical and Zen.)
If I can afford an expensive car with gobs of power, I don't need GM
hovering over me like an overprotective mom. Yet the $64,000,
556-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V Coupe I recently tested will not allow the
use of fundamental parts of its navigation system while actually on the
In other words, if the wheels are turning, my front-seat passenger
cannot program in a destination: The touch-screen commands become
inoperable. Sorry, but that's exactly when I need directions -- when I'm
lost and actually driving someplace.
Navigation systems are a major source of complaints I get from
passengers. The Japanese generally make the best. Within moments of
tinkering, you can program in a destination, find a radio station and
get moving. Honda's cheap Fit hatchback bests most luxury cars, and the
Koreans aren't far behind.
The Germans treat the navigation interfaces like a game of technological
one-upmanship, delivering radically different systems such as BMW's
inscrutable, first-generation iDrive. Even today, best settle in for a
fortnight to learn their operations.
Then there's the British. Drop a huge pile of cash on any Bentley or
Aston Martin and you'll end up with fuzzy graphics and an arcane
interface which make the original Atari game console seem revolutionary.
By these standards, the Brits would never have got off the island to
colonize the world.
Speaking of video-game-worthy graphics, the latest hybrids have super
snazzy graphics that give too much information, as if we were playing
the newest version of "Halo" rather than driving. Most present a complex
diagram of the moment-by-moment flow of energy between battery, engine
and wheels. A mechanical engineering degree is optional but wouldn't hurt.
You'll get a series of screens to scroll through in your spare time in
the new Chevy Volt or Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, so you can parse every
ounce of energy usage.
Ford's Fusion Hybrid actually "grows" green leaves on the screen,
indicating how efficiently you're driving. It's so pretty! Oh, I'm
expected to keep my eyes on the road?
Finally, while American drivers demand a proliferation of cup holders,
I'd be happy with a cubby for my cell phone. Car designers must be aware
of the omnipresence of mobiles, so is it too much to ask for a simple
niche which will hold a smart phone securely and upright, so I can see
who is calling? I promise both the attorneys and other drivers that I
won't pick it up and text.
I grant that many issues which plague drivers can be solved by one
simple solution -- but as far as I'm concerned, reading the owner's
manual is only for quitters.
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