How to Make the Perfect Automobile — Part 2: "Advanced" Controls


  • GMC Canyon - Detail

    GMC Canyon - Detail

    Once upon a time, my door locks did exactly as I told them. Now they've become a major adversary, often thwarting my efforts to enter or exit a vehicle. | July 01, 2010

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It was almost one year ago when I explained "How to Make the Perfect Automobile" with regard to basic interior controls. I had planned to follow up that column quickly with one on advanced controls, but there were too many other topics that took precedence, until now.

But this month I'm finally able to once again focus on helping carmakers build the Perfect Automobile. And no, I don't require any cards or letters of support from the various CEOs and heads of design out there. Just knowing that I'm helping you guys create a better automotive world is thanks enough.

Below you will find the most problematic areas in need of attention by interior control designers. While the topics range from power door lock programming to navigation systems, you will quickly notice a common theme that car companies would do well to remember: never assume the car knows better than its driver. Without further ado:

1. Programmed Power Door Locks: I used to think I was the only one who hated the power door lock systems on most modern cars. Then I started talking to my fellow editors, as well as friends and relatives, and realized this is a universal source of pain for most car owners. First let me say that while I appreciate the concept of "smart" door locks to increase passenger safety and security, I have found too many instances where these locks are anything but smart.

Problem 1: I hit unlock on the key fob, but only the driver door unlocks, and I have to hit it about five times before I can put my briefcase/coat/lunch/child in the passenger/rear seat.I understand the idea that having only the driver door unlock provides more security for that one time when a lone individual is getting into his car, in a dark, unsecured parking lot in a bad part of town. But really, people, how often do you find yourself in this situation?! Do we all have to suffer the indignity of trying to open a passenger or rear door, only to find it locked, and then spend the next 5 seconds hitting the "unlock" button again and again and again, just because of this one, obscure "what if" scenario? Note to carmakers: I want every door to unlock after just one push of the unlock button on the key fob. I'll take responsibility for my wife possibly getting carjacked…in the white-bread, suburban community where she does 99.9 percent of her driving. And yes, I know you can program this type of unlock behavior on certain models, but I think it should be the default programming on all cars. If you're overly concerned with having more than just your driver door unlocked, fine, you find a dealer to put your car in "paranoid" mode and leave the rest of us to live out our self-assured, one-press-unlocks-entire-car life in peace.

Problem 2: The car locks as soon as I put it in drive, and/or as soon as I go above XX mph, making it a big hassle every time I try to get out of my vehicle.Once again, by having carmakers assume I want my doors locked whenever I'm in motion I have to pull on my door release multiple times to get out. This is particularly fun when, say, I'm moving my car from the driveway to the garage. Thank god the door locked during that procedure! Who knows what sort of mass carnage could have resulted otherwise? The worst offenders are the models with a door release that doesn't unlock the door. Instead of just wasting my time by pulling on the release twice (once to unlock the door and once to actually open it), I have to hunt down the unlock button before I can get the hell out. You know those studies where they tell you how much of your life you'll spend sitting at red lights or waiting in line or deleting spam from your inbox? Well this is another figure I'm sure I don't want to hear: How much unnecessary time will I spend trying to get into and out of my own car!

GM is the leading offender when it comes to blocking my vehicular exit, as the carmaker commonly has doors that lock when the gearshift goes into drive, but they don't unlock when it goes back into park. And the new Corvette is worse still. It has electric doors that won't even let you get out until the car is in park (or reverse on manual-shift models). Yup, you can push on the door-release button all day, but it won't engage the door mechanism unless you push in the clutch and move the shifter to reverse. The irony here? Many of these carmakers are assuming that by having Draconian door lock systems they are protecting their customers, and thus themselves, from legal liability.

I want to see what happens the first time a Corvette buyer has an emergency situation where he needs to get out of his car quickly, and in his panicked state he forgets about (or maybe he's unable to comply with) the little "must be in reverse to open door" rule, and he's trapped in the car. Talk about liability….

2. Navigation Systems: These are becoming almost mainstream, at least in terms of availability. It's still a pretty small percentage of buyers who actually spring for these $1,000-plus options, but the number of models on which they are available has skyrocketed over the past three years. There are a few basic items every navigation system must have:

a. a "back" button for when you hit something you didn't mean to hit
b. an easy-to-use "enter" button (tiny little joysticks you have to "push for enter" don't count)
c. a large screen that doesn't require bifocals to read

Obviously a touchscreen that works by touch (not "pound") is better than using a bunch of cheap-feeling buttons, but the single most important feature is the ability to use the navigation system while the car is in motion. Before anyone starts in with the whole "driver distraction" angle, I should make one thing clear — I believe that some people are more skilled at multitasking than others. Rather than insist that navigation system programming (or cell phone conversations or listening to the radio) is absolutely, undeniably dangerous activity to undertake while driving, I'll simply state that some people can partake of these things safely and some can't. If you can't, don't. If you can, the automaker shouldn't be hindering you (or assuming it knows better than you do).

And, at the very least, I should be able to let my wife program the system without having to pull over on a major highway to do it (which I've had to do in the last three months, by the way). If automakers can put a sensor in the passenger seat to turn an airbag on or off, they can certainly allow a navigation system to function while a car is in motion, even if only when the passenger seat is occupied.

3. Exterior Rearview Mirrors: I covered basic rearview mirror controls in my last article, but this time I'm tackling the "smart" exterior mirrors that know just where to tilt based on what the car is doing. For instance, if I put a car in reverse obviously I want the exterior mirrors to tilt down, right? Well, actually, if I'm in the parking structure at Edmunds.com I want the mirrors to stay straight because of the large concrete support beams that straddle every third parking space. These are essentially invisible to me if the mirrors tilt down. And now that I think about it, when I'm backing out of my garage at home I need to see how far the side of the car is from the garage door opening, which is also impossible to do with the mirrors pointed down.

And since most of my driving involves traveling between my house and Edmunds.com (I can't remember the last time I had to park next to a curb), the tilt-down "feature" is really quite an annoyance.

It seems the car doesn't know what's best for me on this one, too.

4. Stability Control Systems: Stability control was once a rare technology offered on only high-end luxury or performance models. Now you can get it on sub-$20,000 cars like the Ford Focus and Mini Cooper. This increased access to stability control is great for most people most of the time, but I've noticed a troubling trend with these systems over the past few years: I can't turn them off!

The first model I experienced this on was the redesigned 2003 Toyota 4Runner, which didn't even pretend to let me turn off VSC (Vehicle Stability Control). There was no "off" button; instead I had to drive it very gingerly through our 600-foot slalom, feeling like a minesweeper in a bad part of Fallujah. One false move and bam!, I'm assaulted by a torrent of beeping sounds, unexpected braking and unwanted power loss. The same thing is true of many modern cars, including the ones with buttons that supposedly deactivate these systems. Mercedes is a common modern example. It has an "ESP" button, but even with the system supposedly disabled it will still intervene, it just waits longer than when it's "on."

I understand that automakers don't want people behaving badly (or stupidly) in their products, but as a paying customer who puts in my 40-plus hours a week of responsibility, can't I have a little fun in my off time? Apparently, if my off time includes turning "off" my stability control, I can't. From a purely Orwellian standpoint, I find this trend far more disturbing than a national ID card.

There are other areas where functionality could be improved, but the above examples stand out as the most common, and most annoying, in my regular experiences of driving new cars. None of these problems is difficult to fix, and I've even given the automakers a clear path to redemption. Remember, guys, when all else fails, assume the driver, who is actually sitting in the car when any given decision has to be made, knows better than you do.

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