Monday, May 01, 2017

New Cars Ain't What They Used to Be

A friend of ours whose age is somewhere north of seventy recently bought a new pickup truck.  Soon afterwards, in text messages she started calling herself "Keyfob."  When we asked why, she said, "Well, that's what my truck calls me.  When I get out of it it says, 'Keyfob has left the vehicle.'"

She has a new truck because she totaled her previous truck in a collision that she survived largely because of safety features that newer models have.  So no one should think I'm opposed to innovative technology in the automotive industry in general, especially when it contributes to safety.  But as Chicago Tribune reporter Robert Duffer recently pointed out, some of the innovations that carmakers have inflicted on new-car buyers recently can be annoying, confusing, or downright dangerous.

Duffer cites a J. D. Power survey of new-car-owner complaints that showed the category broadly described as "infotainment" was responsible for more complaints than anything else.  This includes things like touch screens, voice-activated commands, and touch-sensitive controls for radios and music players.  It turns out that by 2018, safety rules will mandate that every new car have a backup camera, and consequently a display screen will have to be somewhere in the driver's view.  Carmakers eager to get a competitive advantage are not going to leave such an opportunity alone, and you can expect they will pile more and more features into that screen in addition to simply displaying the backup camera output. 

Some of the problems with new cars stem from the fact that they are almost completely "fly-by-wire" in the sense that many driver outputs—accelerator, gearshift, and so on—don't do anything mechanical directly, but instead go to electronic sensors that run instructions through the car's CPU to execute commands, and similarly with the instrumentation that provides driver inputs.  Airline pilots, with their sophisticated and recurring training, managed the transition from mechanical airplane controls to fly-by-wire technology pretty well, but there were some glitches along the way even in that highly specialized realm.

Duffer provides evidence that when you take the average driver, whose total training to drive nowadays may consist in a few sketchy lessons under the reluctant tutelage of a parent decades ago, and plop him or her into a cockpit with literally dozens of new control surfaces, menus, options, and ways of doing things that used to be done basically the same way by automakers for decades but are now completely different, you're going to have problems.

Perhaps the most striking issue was the way some manufacturers misused the privilege of making the gearshift lever absolutely any way they want to now.  Back in the days of the column-mounted automatic gearshift lever, Duffer reminds us that the sequence "PRNDL" for "park-reverse-neutral-drive-low" was pretty standard.  Anybody back then could get into any car and at least know how to shift it.  But BMW and Fiat-Chrysler both went on the market in the last few years with gearshifts that defaulted to neutral, so the driver could turn off the engine and get out of the car with the vehicle still in neutral. 

For drivers who had developed the bad but understandable habit of relying on a car's transmission parking driveshaft-lock feature to keep the car from rolling, rather that setting the parking brake, this new feature was an accident waiting to happen.  And it did happen to a number of people, the most famous of whom was a Star Trek actor named Anton Yelchin who was pinned between his Jeep Cherokee and a brick column when his car rolled at him and crushed him to death.  Most of those cars have now been recalled to fix this issue, which never should have showed up in the first place.  

With freedom comes responsibility, and the new freedom that automakers enjoy to reinvent the driving experience comes with a responsibility to make sure that the average driver is not inconvenienced or worse by innovations that look attractive at first, but turn out to be annoying or dangerous. 

A lesson can be drawn from the early days of automobiles prior to 1925 or so, when there were literally dozens of carmakers vying for what promised to be a huge and growing market.  Henry Ford's Model T, produced in some form from 1908 all the way to 1927, is not a machine that your average driver today could get going without some lessons.  Even when an electric starter was added in 1919, the operator had to manipulate two steering-column-mounted levers (one was the throttle and the other was the spark-timing advance) and manage three foot pedals, two of which dealt with a mysterious planetary transmission that was part manual and part automatic.  By the mid-1920s, however, the accelerator had moved to the floor and the brake and clutch pedal position had stabilized in most newer makes, and there the matter stood until automatic transmissions came along. 

Then the question arose of where to put the automatic transmission controls.  It started out as a lever on the steering column, but even as early as the 1950s the designers started experimenting.  The ill-fated Edsel, for example, had a series of buttons on the dashboard to control the transmission, which probably led to problems like putting the car into reverse on the freeway when all you wanted to do was turn on the heater.  Eventually, with the advent of front bucket seats, the between-the-seats gearshift lever showed up, but even that standard has been tinkered with to the endangerment of the public, as the story of the Star Trek star showed.

Maybe it's too much to hope for, but a movement among automakers to standardize on a few basic features that all new cars will have in the same place that work in the same way would be welcome, at least by drivers who are no longer young enough to learn completely different operating systems each time they buy a new car.  At the very least, the car companies should view all software and hardware innovations with a mind to safety first, lest we have more potentially fatal problems such as the default-to-neutral gearshift. 

As for me, I'm going to hang on to my old vehicles till the wheels fall off, or maybe just before.

Sources:  Robert Duffer's article entitled "Five worst new car features reinvent the wheel for no reason" appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on Apr. 17, 2017 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the Model T.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Thanks!

    One reason that I still drive a 1981 Toyota Corolla is that I like its mechanical controls. Each is in a specific location and, once learned, is easily tested and changed by feel. I never have to look, much less stab out at a touch screen, taking my eyes off the road. By feel, I can tell if my headlights are on and if they're on high.

    By feel, I can change anything and that is very good. Look inside a state-of-the-art jet fighter and you'll find the same tactile set of controls. In a dogfight, you can't be looking down. Driving should be the same.

    The particulars of the design are also well thought out. If I sudden find my windshield fogging up, I simply thrust all the climate control levers to the far left, turning the heat on full and directing it to my windshield. No absurd touch screens to wade through. I can do it without looking in about a second.

    Of course, those mechanical controls are complex and expensive. Computerize everything and automakers gain two advantages.

    1. The initial installation is cheap.

    2. If something breaks, it is a specialized item available only from them and at a high price.

    I experienced something similar when I worked nights in a hospital caring for children with leukemia whose IVs were typically very complex and needed constant checking. I soon learned to feel my way through the fluid path from bag to patient, making sure all was as it should be.

    There's also much good about having both visual and tactile feedback available. There's nothing tactile about these touch screens.

    --Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia