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Why Modern Car Dashboards Suck

Posted by on | March 27, 2018 | Comments Off

The WSJ has an article today about digital dashboards in cars, focusing on how software glitches are making cares undriveable, the motoring version of the blue screen of death.  I have no particular comment on the reliability issue, but the article reminds me that for a while I have wanted to post a rant about modern car electronics.

Specifically, my issue is with the user interface, and that user interface sucks.  I have a 2007 model car and am in no hurry to replace it in large part because I cannot find a car with a user interface for the sound and climate systems that I can tolerate.   I will illustrate this with a look at my wife’s car, a Mercedes that is a couple of years old.  Her radio still has 10 preset buttons (actual physical buttons, thank god for small favors) but for them to work, her radio has to be in radio preset channel mode.  So let’s say it is there and I get in the car and want to listen to Sirius channel 80 (ESPN).  That is not one of her presents,  I have to get out of preset mode and get into satellite radio mode.  To do that I have to hit the back button, then with this dial thing I have to bump the dial up to get the top menu, turn the dial to get audio options, click the dial to select audio options, then turn the dial again to select satellite radio (vs. other choices like FM or AM) and then click the dial to select.  Now I am in satellite radio mode and I can twirl the dial to go up and down the stations.  I have to do similar contortions navigating layers of menus to get into navigation mode or pull up a map.  All while I am trying to drive.

Compare this to my 2007 car.  If I am in some other radio mode, I jam the physical button marked “sat” and I am in satellite radio mode.  No layers of menus to navigate.  I can hit the FM or AM buttons to immediately reach those.  If I want the map, I hit the physical button marked “map” or the button marked “nav”.  No navigating through layers of windows while I am trying to drive.  Some of the rental cars I get are even worse.  They have integrated systems that cover not just the sound system and navigation system but the climate control.  It is incredibly irritating and distracting to have to try to navigate layers of menus just to change the fan speed on the A/C.  My wife and I have had whole trips where we never discovered how to do certain things in the car because we couldn’t figure out the obtuse interface.

So this is what I don’t understand.  If car designers are getting rid of physical buttons in favor of multilayered menu systems because it saves them a bunch of money, fine.  Bad trade-off in my mind, but there is at least a reason.   But if they are getting rid of physical buttons because they think that modern users prefer navigating multiple screens to access commonly used functionality, this is simply insane.  No one can top me for pure technophilia, but technical wizardry should not come at the expense of reduced usability.

Postscript:  And don’t tell me “well, you can use voice commands.”  The voice interface in my wife’s Mercedes is still unreliable and results in her yelling at it a lot.  And while they have a lot of upside, most voice interfaces still have the same problem that Alexa has, which is that you have to memorize a syntax for each command.  You can’t say natural language, “Alexa I need lights” or “turn the lights on Alexa” it has to be “Alexa, bedroom lights on.”  Sort of the verbal equivalent of WordPerfect, where users had to memorize what cntl-alt-shift-R does.

 Why Modern Car Dashboards Suck  Why Modern Car Dashboards Suck  Why Modern Car Dashboards Suck

 Why Modern Car Dashboards Suck

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