Automotive Control Confusion

Recently I rented a 2012 Ford Escape and I was completely bewildered by all the controls and displays. This problem is not a Ford problem. Most new cars nowadays are all computer controlled and the human interfaces to the various systems are utterly confusing, to the point of being dangerous.

You should not have to get the manual out to operate a car, but for these new cars, it’s almost a requirement.

However, when you drive away with a rental car, at least you should know how the main drive controls work, like the brakes and the lights. It would be good to know how to operate the climate controls. You should also know how to turn off the radio.

I took a few pictures to make my point.

First, car designers love to load the steering wheel with more and more controls. There are six different areas on this car alone. I labeled them Control 1 through Control 6.

Looking at Control 1, I could not, in the four days I drove this car, figure out exactly how it worked. It somehow was the thing that manipulated the screen labeled Display 1 (green arrow), cycling through the odometer displays, allowing them to be reset, showing averages, gas mileage, etc. But the various buttons sometimes responded, sometimes did not, and I could never really make sense of it. I ran with trip odometer 1 on the display simply out of frustration.

The area labeled Control 2 has to do with the sound and entertainment. Here I could also not quite figure out how it all tied in, because there were other controls and displays that also messed with the entertainment section, which I’ll get to below.

Controls 3 and 5, together, deal with cruise control. Ok, I managed to get that to work, although Ford likes to do this differently that GM and Japanese manufacturers. The Control 5 is “below” the steering wheel. It’s this large lever you pull up. In this case it means Cancel and Resume, very intuitively labeled Can/Res.

Control 4 has to do with the phone. I actually managed to hook up my iPhone over Bluetooth, which is done on a Control 7 (see below), and the phone hangup and pickup buttons worked. However, to dial, I tried to use the voice control – OH MY GOD, WHAT A MESS – so I really needed to pick up the phone itself and dial anyway.

Control 6 is the car’s wake up button (from underneath the steering wheel) to talk to it. But it understood none of my commands, and I found myself confused trying to teach it English while I was driving. It was simpler to just pull over to initiate a phone call.

A lot of the controls are now in the center console. Unfortunately, they split the controls to a top section, with the big screen (Display 2), and a bottom section with a little screen (Display 3). The bottom section looks like the radio, and I actually intuitively tried it to turn off the blasting radio when I got into the car until I realized it’s the climate control area.

However, there is a serious problem with that. Much of the climate DISPLAY is on the top screen (Display 2). So the feedback to using controls in the bottom section Control 9 is happening in Display 2 as much as I could surmise. Just turning the fans to dash control, then turning the fans to the right speed and setting a temperature required hitting several controls on the bottom and on the top sections. Eventually I got it fairly ok, and I was careful never to touch it again. I really didn’t understand how it all worked. Furthermore, the Control 9 area is obstructed by the shift lever which is not visible in my picture, since I put the car in drive to get the shift lever out of the way for this picture. Needless to say, it’s hard to operate the Control 9 area when the car is in park, because the shift lever is in the way, blocking access for the right hand.

I am assuming that the console engineers never actually sit in a car when they design this, so they don’t realize the thing is blocked in park.

Control 7 and 8 are jointly there for the entertainment section. This is the worst it, since Display 2 is also a touch screen. So some things are operated by touch buttons in Control 7, others by real buttons in Control 8. Moving around between different entertainment sources and skipping over songs on a CD was really confusing, because somehow it required the use of both Control 7 and Control 8. Control 2 on the steering wheel also messes with entertainment functions. Go figure.

I rigged up the iPhone for directions, and they played on the speaker system, but I could not make it work without the iPhone also playing its music. If I wanted to hear the directions, I needed to play music. Muting the music muted the directions. You might say that was an iPhone problem, not a Ford problem, but no. When I unplugged the iPhone and disconnected Bluetooth, the iPhone had no trouble giving me directions and didn’t need to play songs.

And here comes my favorite icon, which is Control 6 above, highlighted here:

A lot of cars now use this icon for “talk to me” in cars.

This has got to be the worst icon in human history. What’s wrong with the word Talk? In cruise control we use Can/Res. Anyone that can figure out Can/Res should be able to figure out Talk, you’d think. Same with “i”. That stands for “information.” Ok. English. The car is an English car. Talk. Please.

This is supposed to be a face. Can anyone think of an uglier face? Is this an American face, or an Asian one? I wonder what Steve Jobs would have thought of this icon?

How does grandma manage these cars? Does she ever turn on the air-conditioning? Or does she have to call her nephew to do it when summer comes?

3 thoughts on “Automotive Control Confusion

  1. I’m convinced that the primary qualification for being allowed to design cars is that you’ve never been in one. The exteriors to most modern cars look like they’ve been designed for the lucrative Romulan/Cardassian market (all awkward angles and meaningless design cues with unfinished awkward rear ends) and the interiors are designed to hinder actually using the vehicle. Make it elegant. Make it simple. Eliminate as many buttons as possible.

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