There are some statistics that I like to bandy about, albeit there being no way I can be sure about their accuracy. Like I’ve been an auto journalist for more than 15 years, I hate sitting as a passenger and I must have driven around 90% of the world’s car models over my career. At a conservative estimate I should be on my way back from the moon for the 4th time, if you choose to parley distance driven into moon trip distances. Then why couldn’t I find the button to zero the odometer on the new Santa Fe that I was driving at its launch?
No one could, but that was no solace. The journalist in the car with me was sure that I should know, the dealer principal from another country in the back seat had no idea and even the odd-ball company official who looked in to ask if we had zeroed the odo, looked at me as if I was losing the plot. Pressure may be helpful sometimes, but this was not one of those times. I had just settled into telling my companion that we would keep a running tally ahead when the one official who knew the process entered the scene, bumped a button three times and reset the counter.
Now, I ask you, why would we need a manual to drive a car? No I am not including all the complications of modern infotainment systems, navigation and the like. Let’s keep it to basic driving functions – shouldn’t anyone know where everything is? Now ask yourself, are car manufacturers making life unnecessarily complex by changing traditional layouts in car interiors? It’s bad enough when you have to fly into a new country and switch from left-hand drive to right-hand drive, but then you also have to deal with the flipped positioning of the light and wiper stalks. But that’s something you cannot escape. Now why would you take something like an odo-reset button and move it from the instrument panel, to the end of a stalk, to a button on the steering wheel, to a sub-menu item on the button? As car journalists, we have had our share of finding the hazard button itself, but at least it is either red coloured or has a red triangle on it. Try finding the zero!
Imagine what your condition would be if you drove through the GCC countries and couldn’t fill up at a petrol pump in one of them because they had their own design of nozzle. Or what if one of the couple of communist nations remaining decided that you always turned left irrespective of the side you turned your wheel. As human beings and as drivers, we are comforted by the known – ergo standards.
As a late-comer to the Apple iPhone ball, I must say that the one thing that Apple has got right is the sheer intuitiveness of the phone, its interface and software. You never need a manual. It’s all swipe, tap and pinch. Oh, yes and maybe a shake or two. But the essentials are all covered in a couple of steps – you can make calls, send messages and even run the odd app or two without even being able to read. My five-year old is living proof that knowing which button is for Yes or Accept is enough.
In cars, the auto gearbox controls can be found as a steering wheel stalk, all sorts of lateral-movement knobs, paddle-shifters and even rotary knobs that rise out of the console. But you still guess your way with the P,R,N,D sequence telling you what it is for.
Yes, as new features make their way into car interiors, the need to cram essential buttons on whatever available landscape there is left is putting pressure on designers. BMW went through one iteration with its fabled iDrive before they moved climate control and audio basic controls back into the physical sphere. In the eagerness to provide features for the consumer, the car is becoming a hybrid of a communication device, entertainment system, navigation system and transportation device, with a good chance that you will soon be tweeting and posting Facebook comments as well. The only way you can put it all on the dash is to use a touch screen interface. But in the eagerness to do that let’s hope that the human interface isn’t buggered up too much. It’ll be scary to get in a car where you cannot find the steering wheel, except as an interactive image on your touchscreen.