How to Make the Perfect Automobile — Part 1: Basic Controls
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How to Make the Perfect Automobile — Part 1: Basic Controls


I'm about to mark my 10th anniversary of working in the automotive industry. The first four years were spent at Petersen Publishing, a company that has since become just another division of Primedia. I spent those 48 months focused primarily on high-performance cars — be they vintage American hot rods or late-model import tuner cars. The subsequent six years have been spent at Edmunds.com, where yours truly has focused almost entirely on late-model automobiles of every type, from SUVs to economy sedans to European exotics.

While most car designers learn their trade at a specific school, before graduating to life at one of the various automakers, my sense of design comes from the opposite side: the end user. And after 10 years, with seat time behind the wheel of approximately 500 cars, I've come up with some basic elements I feel represent non-negotiable requirements for modern vehicle design. It might be rather presumptuous to assume I know how to best design a car; but I've never let that stop me before.

With the words "Part 1" in the title you can assume I won't try to cover the entire automobile in one writing. Rather, this article will focus on basic interior control design. I'll follow it up with an article on more complex controls and another on exterior design guidelines at future dates.

Audio Controls — This could be the subject of an entire column, but I'll just hit the highlights for now. One large dial on the left side, one on the right. The left one pushes for on/off and twists for volume. The right one twists for manual frequency control (or CD track advance) and pushes — then twists — for tonal controls (bass, treble, fader, balance, etc.). Memory buttons between the two dials are for station memory presets, and they are programmed by simply holding them down for two seconds (are you listening, Chrysler?). This is how every audio head unit should work. There can be additional buttons/dials for more advanced functions, but these basics are non-negotiable. Toyota gets it. BMW, Chrysler, Honda and many others do not. (However, Chrysler makes up some ground for having those trick steering wheel buttons on the back of the steering wheel spokes.)

Climate Controls — This one is easy. Three basic dials: one for temperature, one for fan speed, one for ventilation control (i.e. dash vents, floor vents, defrost vents or a combination thereof). The dials twist, of course, but on the center of the dials are buttons for the air conditioning compressor, cabin air recirculation (or "Max AC") and rear defrost. Also, seat heater controls belong near the climate controls, because both have to do with warming you up or cooling you down. Nissan's Titan is a perfect example of doing climate controls right.

Cruise Control — Ideally on the steering wheel, but a well-designed stalk works, too. The key is minimal movement of your hand from the steering wheel to the cruise controls. Honda should lose its one main cruise control button from the lower left side of the dash (where the headlight knob should be); to the company's credit, the newest model in its lineup, the Accord, has the main power button relocated to the steering wheel. Toyota takes a simpler approach, but its small stalk mounted in the 4 o'clock position works well, too. The large Mercedes stalk (you know, the one you keep hitting when trying to find the turn signals) does not.

Headlight Controls — These belong on the lower left side of the dash in the form of a twist dial (it pulls out to turn on the foglights). The steering column-mounted stalks that twist are a bad idea. Why? Ask anyone with an older Japanese car in which the detents on the headlight stalk have worn out and every time they attempt to signal a lane change, the headlights flash on. No, headlights are a once-a-trip activity, so they belong in a somewhat obscure place (lower left side of the dash). Now, to activate high beams with a steering column stalk is another matter. This has to be done often during nighttime driving, so a push-pull stalk within easy reach of the steering wheel is fine. Most American and European automobiles have this right. Most Japanese vehicles do not.

Horn — Easy. One big pressure point that takes up all of the steering wheel hub, like it used to be. And I don't want to hear any excuses about airbags. The idea of sacrificing one safety feature in lieu of another doesn't work for me; neither does searching the steering wheel for a small button during an emergency situation. The current-day Mini Cooper falls down here, but GM has it right.

Mirror Controls — These should be in the center console area or on the driver door. Either location is fine as long as you can reach them without changing the position of your head or torso. How many cars out there require you to reach for the rearview mirror controls in order to operate them…thus moving out of the position you need to be in to properly adjust them?

Seat Controls — Mercedes (and now Chrysler) has got this one nailed down. Power seat controls belong on the door, and the button should resemble the parts of the seat they control (upright button for seat back, lower horizontal button for seat bottom, etc.). This means you can actually see what you're doing to the seat while you adjust it. Seat-position memory buttons also go here, but as already mentioned, seat heater/cooling buttons do not.

Window Controls — Like the seat adjustments, these belong on the doors. Why? Because the windows are on the doors. Think about where you are most often looking when you open or close a window. At the center console? At the center of the dash? No, you're looking out the window. Also, the one-touch up/down feature is a good idea, but making it hard to differentiate between one-touch and non-one-touch intentions is not. There should be a solid detent that separates the two. The Infiniti QX56 is a good example.

Wiper Controls — These have to be within easy reach of the steering wheel, so a stalk is really the only way to go. I prefer moving the stalk up/down, between strong detents, versus twisting the end of the stalk because it is a more deliberate motion. You can do it quickly and without much finesse when necessary, like when that cloudburst unloads on you. Save the twisting for the speed of the variable wiper setting or operating the rear window wiper. Mini has this one right.

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