Is your car too smart? May 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , trackback
Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum reports on complaints that computerized amenities in modern cars are too confusing for many drivers. Car producers are packing more and more computerized features into the cabins of cars for operators to interact with. Unfortunately, the operators sometimes have difficulty figuring out how to work their new toys. The MyFord Touch system, for example, has attracted complaints that it is too complex for people to operate.
To deal with the problem, Ford is trying to persuade dealers to become more expert in the operations of these new, in-car electronics. With greater training, dealers can then help to train buyers in the ins and outs of their new computerized gear.
Charette puts the problem down to poor design:
Of course, it might help if car designers spent a little more time with their human factors counterparts to make the operations of the electronics more transparent and easy to use. There has been several occasions where I would have been more than pleased to explain in detail to the designers of several of the electronic systems on my Toyota Sienna how they got it dreadfully wrong. Needing a couple of hundred page manual to explain how to use my car’s electronics is a symptom of the problem.
It would not be the first time that poor design sabotaged a new, in-car system. Early versions of BMW’s iDrive system were notoriously difficult to deal with, requiring drivers to use a joystick to navigate a hierarchical menu system to operate the simplest functions, e.g,. the radio, all while driving at speed. Usability has always been an issue for the software industry, which has a tendency to present functions in a way that prioritizes their abstract relationships rather than their practical uses. Now that cars are ever more computerized, these problems with software design have become problems for automotive design.
The response of having dealers train users is reminiscent of the problem of training new drivers when cars themselves were a new invention. In his book, “User unfriendly“, Joseph Corn documents how the first automobiles confounded their users. Cars were radically different than the familiar horse and buggy, and early operators experienced many problems with driving and just keeping their machines working. Auto manufacturers responded by training dealers enough to talk up the features of their cars, and by issuing manuals that purported to explain their purchases to new car owners. Neither effort was much of a success. The situation was amended only when new technologies made cars reliable enough to work without so much fuss by the drivers.
It may be that this will have to happen with in-car electronics too. That is, instead of training drivers to adapt to their gear, automakers will have to design the gear so that drivers can operate it without so much preparation.