By on August 21, 2006

fig_03222.jpgHow easy is your car to use?  I'm not talking about acceleration, steering or cornering. I'm talking about the mental effort required to successfully interact with your car’s secondary features, such as in-car entertainment or the trip computer. While controls like steering (the brilliant simplicity of a wheel), throttle (foot pedal farthest to the right) and braking (second-to-right pedal) are standardized for most vehicles certified for use on a public road, the majority of other controls are confusing enough to plunge an automotive reviewer (or a Hertz Platinum Club member) into RTFM rage.

Sometimes it’s a simple matter of old habits dying hard: in many ways the best interface is one you don't have to re-learn. If you're used to having to jab at a button several times to adjust the temperature several degrees while surveying the change on a display that’s located on the opposite hemisphere of the dash, that may be the best user interface—for you.

But that’s not the whole story when something as basic as starting the car has now taken on innumerous forms. Do you A) insert the key in a slot (to the right or left of the steering wheel or in the center console) and turn it or B) insert the key in a hole and push it or C) insert the key into a slot and push a start button or D) ignore the key altogether as long as it's on your person and then either push a button or twist a piece of plastic adjacent to the steering wheel? Each of these methods are used by at least one current production car—and I’m sure I’ve missed at least one type of ignition sequence.

Changing gears is a similar issue. If you want to upshift using an automatic transmission with a shift-it-yourself mode, do you tap the shifter forward, backward or to the right? Or do you use buttons on the steering wheel? If you use steering wheel buttons, do you push the button on the right to upshift or on the back to downshift and the front to upshift?  Or does the car instead use paddles behind the steering wheel? Which paddle do you use? Do you push or pull?  And in case you want to shift while turning, do the paddles rotate with the steering wheel or are they stationary?

Even something as simple as automatic door locks come complete with their own set of usability issues.  Do they lock when you put the car in Drive or when you reach a preset speed? Do they automatically unlock when you put the car back in Park?  Do they automatically unlock when you pull the interior door handle, and if so, in the back seat or just the front?  How do you disable them? Can you disable them?  Can you even answer these questions about your own car?

Clearly, usability and interface design principles are taking a backseat to aesthetics and automakers’ oddly conflicting compulsions to be both trendy and unique.  The problem is compounded by the unprecedented numbers of features being added to new cars, such as satellite radio and navigation, iPod integration, DVD players, Bluetooth cell phone connections, four-zone climate control, OnStar, heated and cooled massaging memory seats, etc. Without well-thought-out ways of interacting with these new features, the result is anarchy.  I’d like to know how many times BMW Assist has been summoned by X5 drivers who thought they were opening their sunroofs, since the corresponding buttons are poorly marked, nearly identical, and adjacent to each other in matching wells, for no apparent reason other than BMW’s ever-questionable ideas regarding aesthetics.

Annoyances aside, this is a serious matter. Among products that most of us deal with on a day-to-day basis, cars inhabit a special subcategory: products that regularly cause death.  Anything that requires us to dawdle too long with an in-car interface literally puts lives in danger, yet cars are still often poorly thought out or designed with form over function. No matter your opinion on how easy BMW’s iDrive controller is to learn, there’s no getting around the fact that you have to take your eyes off the road for significant periods of time to navigate through its seemingly endless hierarchy of menus.

While manufacturers may be aware of the problem, they’re not very good at solving it. They often seem to simply compete in shoehorning more features into fewer buttons, birthing such disastrous ideas as the aforementioned 11-way haptic feedback control knob (a.k.a. iDrive) and nearly equally—though differently—awful in-car voice recognition. For enthusiasts, these issues are particularly pressing. Any device which gets between them and driving is, rightly, reviled.  Any device that adds to their enjoyment without frustrating them is celebrated. For hi-tech-loving manufacturers, designing a car that’s easy-to-use that pleases the cognoscenti isn’t proving easy. 

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57 Comments on “Cogito Ergo Nomics...”

  • avatar

    Someone please just standardize the side the damn indicator stalk is on..

  • avatar

    The underlying problem is feature creep; more features = (1) more interface widgets or (2) some sort of menu based system like iDrive. Because of aesthetics, the second option is prefered in feature laden vehicles.

  • avatar

    Let’s not forget other basic controls that vary widely between brands – headlights, wipers, cruise control. Driving a rental car for a week can be a hassle as I’m a creature of habit and my Japanese cars all have similar controls.

    They’re pretty basic, so not much to remember when moving from one car to another, other than the Sienna can’t pull off the same maneuvers as the Miata and shouldn’t be driven as enthusiastically lest the family complains about the squealing tires.

  • avatar

    This to me is what makes one car subliminally successful and the next one a mess (without you necessarily knowing why). I despise the big fonts they use in Japanese cars that say ON and OFF and especially the window buttons still saying in this day and age AUTO. Does a German car say that? You just know in a German car how to drop the windows with one click. I drive an Audi and I once read in the Audi magazine about a certain Dr something at Audi that specialises in ergonomics and in the article he explained Audi’s thinking. Once I read it I went to my car and was amazed at how subtle some of these Audi things are. For example most buttons in an Audi click when you press them. Few cars do that, but it gives you an audible confirmation that you pressed it. Another example is tiny extensions in the plastic mouldings around certain buttons. These are there so you can find these buttons without actually having to look. Much the same as the raised points on some of the keys on a laptop’s keyboard or on your cell phone’s number 5 key. Since I discovered these I never look down anymore to change the temperature on any of the tons of buttons that control the climatronic. I’m not saying all companies should standardise to have their interiors like this, but it does make life very easy in a properly sorted car. It does not really matter where you put things from car to car, as long as there is a logic behind it.

  • avatar
    Frank Williams

    Just to show how anal Audi’s engineers are, not only do all their buttons click, they all have the same click!

  • avatar

    I agree with the iDrive comment (…there’s no getting around that you have to take your eyes off the road for significant periods of time…). I personally think it is not that difficult to use, and the newer versions require less “eyes off the road” time than the initial release.

    I currently have a 2006 Ford pickup and my wife drives a 2003 Suburban. I would say that the Suburban is superior ergonomically, but the Ford is more pleasant to view (I hate ending sentences in prepositions). It is easier to make radio and HVAC adjustments in the Chevy, and they have an even better interior coming.

    I think that ergonomics are very important in vehicles.

    By the way, Cogito Ergo Nomics, I think therefore I study???

  • avatar

    why cant all windows in all cars be auto up and down? This drives me crazy sometimes.

    There is definitley feature creep and the mfgs havent decided how to provide the simplest interface to control all of these new in-car gadgets. Has there been anymore research into the iplemtation od HUDs is cars? This could help with some of the menu driven control systems.

  • avatar

    It’s funny how some things are sort of standardized but other things are not. Directional signals are always on the left of the steering column and work the same way on all cars. Windsheild wipers/washers are predominantly on the right–but they work differently on every car, even among those of the same manufacturer. The shifter is either on the console or the right of the steering column. The gas and brake are in the same place, although their spacing differs between cars. Headlight switches are most often on the left, but their location and operation varies.

    Everything else is up for grabs.

    When getting a new car it takes a few days to develop new habits, so no biggie. But when you arrive at an airport at midnight in the rain and get into an unfamiliar U-Wreck-Em, in a city where you need to refer to a map or written directions the “unique” placement of controls is a potential hazard. I’ve learned to sit in a rental car and figure out the key controls before venturing out into traffic so I don’t have to think about it while trying to read directions on a freeway at night in the rain. Or any other time

    Some of the problem is all the gee-whiz gadgets and “features” being added to cars. I actually think fewer bells and whistles are better, at least until the ergonomics and interface are more refined. Speech recognition may be the final solution, but that’s a long ways off from implementation over things like the windsheild wipers or climate control and won’t trickle down to average cars very quickly.

    I wonder how many accidents can be attributed to unfamiliarity with a car and its features?

  • avatar

    Very well written article. I think the point about the dreaded I-drive illustrates where BMW has gone wrong in the last few years. Before they bought Rover, they were run by Dr. Bernd Pischetsrieder ( now at Volkswagen ) and Wolfgang Reitzle ( who I think now does trucks somewhere ? ). Both had a very good understanding of marketing, in that they made sure that BMW’s delivered what the customer wanted. Both were effectively sacked because of the Rover debacle leaving a bit of a mangement void. Now the company seems to be run by engineers, who come up with ideas that they think may be perfect from an engineering point of view ( and many of these people are really just visiting this planet ) with little regards as to how they may affect people who use the product on a day to day basis. Thus we have the I-drive which is technically elegant ( if it ever worked properly ) but a nightmare to actually use day to day. Acitve steering answers a question that no one ever asked while the rush to use run flat tyres ( saving costs and weight ) result in cars with an horrendous ride.

    I don’t believe that any of these “innovations” would have been brought to market as is under the guidance of the old management team, as they would have realized how off putting they were to customers. Hopefully now, with the Rover problems well and truly behind them ( and I don’t think people realize how much disruption this caused at BMW ) will we start to see a more customer focused approach – they might even get around to making the I-drive user friendly !

  • avatar

    I wonder how many accidents can be attributed to unfamiliarity with a car and its features?

    Sadly, lots, just counting the ones caused by mistaking the gas and brake pedals.

  • avatar

    Not only do all the buttons on Audi’s have the same click, but they also all have the exact same travel distance; how’s that for anal? One of the reasons I bought my Audi is because the interior is not only well designed and easy to use, but also the quality is top notch.


  • avatar

    Want the solution for interface chaos? Put Steve Jobs on it.

  • avatar
    Josh Brannon

    I will to a large extent agree with the positive comments about Audi — the VW Group in general has lately become somewhat obsessive about ergonomics (the mid-range stereo head unit in the ’06 Jetta, for example, is mostly brilliant in its simplicity and small but clever touches) — but that’s a long way from how they were just a few years ago with rows of poorly marked, identical black buttons.

    Volvo also obviously makes ergonomics paramount — it’s clear they give deep thought to how best to not require the driver to take eyes off the road and hands off the wheel. The huge pictogram they use for directing climate control airflow is a prime example — it’s immediately obvious both the first time and every subsequent time what to push to make it do what you want.

    Oh and TexasAg03, Cogito Ergo Nomics is all Robert’s. :)

  • avatar

    >>When getting a new car it takes a few days to develop new habits, so no biggie.

    That’s true when you’re young, but less so as you get older. As an extreme example, I vividly remember how my father, at 47, came within about 3 inches of side swiping another car as he pulled the right-hand drive Ford Cortina out of the rental car agency and the general hard time he had. Five years later, at 18, from the get-go I had absolutely no trouble driving on the British side of the road.

    My uncle 82, bought a new car last year. He bought a Camry because his old car was a Camry, and he wanted to have the least possible adjustment to do.

    >>Some of the problem is all the gee-whiz gadgets and “features” being added to cars. I actually think fewer bells and whistles are better, at least until the ergonomics and interface are more refined.

    A lot of the gee-whiz stuff probably doesn’t belong in cars, period. Or at least not within reach of the driver.

  • avatar

    The worst “ergo” disaster I had to deal with was a ’69 Lotus Elan. All they did to make it LH drive was move the steering column over to the other side. Going back to my other car (a Lotus cannot be your ONLY car…) was very confusing – the turn signals were on the wrong side. I was constantly turning my lights off at night when I just wanted to signal a left turn!

    I like the new “Gadget-opia”, but I’m a geek. For me – the more buttons and adjustable doo-dads, the better! Everyone else I know hates it, though. I am constantly having to “set up” or configure all my friends new cars (“I know it will automatically move the seat back when I open the door – but it stopped and I can’t figure out how to turn it back on … “)

    Ultimately, this is a cultural thing – I read an article once about the difference between US, Japanese, and European attitudes towards technology and the demands each group makes. I don’t think manufacturers will every be able to reconcile the huge difference between what US drivers are willing to deal with and overseas techno-lust.

    What does piss me off is the total lack of standards in the Automotive world (at least with respect to consumer hardware); why is it necessary to re-invent the wheel with every new piece of technology? How hard would it be to standardize a data bus or control interface that would allow OEMs to develop to one spec? I realize this would cut down on dealer’s high margin options to an extent – but the rising quality “glitches” that come when each vendor goes it alone have got to be sobering.

  • avatar
    Jay Shoemaker

    Lest we laud Audi too much, try turning on the seat heaters in the A8. The MMI interface is as bad as anything out there.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    My latest Ergo-nightmare was the Tundra I reviewed. Toyota’s corporate wiper stalk is on the RH side of the steering column, works fine in their passenger cars. But get a truck with the usual column shift and the two levers interfere when you’re not looking at where you grab the shifter.

    Ergonomics is a costly and time consuming business, aside from the high-dollar rides with crazy in-dash GUI systems, most every automaker does it right. I find little to fault, they are all a quick study.

    When I was nine years old I sat in the all new 1986 Taurus. That car, aside from its mind blowing styling, taught me ergonomics after a few seconds behind the wheel. It had these pill-shaped window switches that let your finger naturally find the “depressed” side to lower the window without looking.

    Wow, there’s a pic of the switches online!

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    The only press vehicle I’ve ever taken back early was an Audi. Granted, it was one of “those” weeks, but I’d had enough of the Q7, (its huge appetite at the pumps with a long weekend of travel looming was the main reason) but mostly I was just plain irritated by the arrogance of the gadgetry. Sometimes a simple knob does the job best – who really needs a virtual fan on a display screen and buttons to fiddle with when they’re already wrung out and pissed off by 36 degree heat and just want some blessed air conditioning?
    Yah, yah, the camera in the back end was way cool, here’s your prize, now go away and let me drive my beater which doesn’t think it’s smarter than I am.

  • avatar

    That’s pretty lame. How long would it take you to remember that, in order to turn the engine on, you have to have the key on you and then , press the start button? Honnestly?

    This article is pointless. Yes, some interface varies from car to car. But humans still come with a (very little) brain, able to remember which side of the steering column to insert the key.

  • avatar

    In heavily technology laiden cars this will be an issue. More functions means more buttons and or added complexity. It is why automobile manufacturers need to know their target audience. I for one agree you should always have good design and form follows function. If your average buyer is 60 years old then larger knobs, bigger text simpler controls should be used. That’s not saying that simpler controls can’t be used by all it’s just that it becomes even more important if your dempgraphic is geriatric.

    I had alot more technology packed into my Murano than I do in my RX8. I find other than the navigation system I don’t really miss any of it. The HVAC controls are simpler and can be handled easily without looking away from the road. There is no touch screen to fool with like in my wife’s Odyssey and everything is in easy reach.

    I agree that auto up and down windows should be standard on any car with power windows.

  • avatar

    well hopefully nobody will make paddle shifters that turn with the wheel. they should all be based on the f1 system. drivers ed should teach proper steering technique (aka shuffle steering), which keeps your hands in position to shift with paddles all the time, but that aint gonna happen. anyhow i actually prefer old school car controls over the new ones. touchscreens are a disaster for basic functions, because you HAVE to look, there is no feeling the buttons.

  • avatar

    I remember reading that carmakers were differentiating their interfaces in an effort to lock drivers into their brands. David’s comment about his uncle buying another Camry to minimize the learning process that goes with a new car is telling.

    As interfaces get more complex and differentiated, it will be interesting to see the impact on brand loyalty. Will BMW drivers stick with BMW because it isn’t worth the hassle to figure out MMI and COMAND? If so, will car dealers have to beef up their tutorials when a car is delivered?

    Will cars be like PC’s wherein there are Mac people who would never buy awindows PC?

    I used to like the first couple of months with a new car when you are figuring out all the little features. (“Oh, that’s how you turn on the light in the trunk”). But Autoweek’s review of the new Lexus LS says the manual was 600 pages long? Forget about it.

    Not that I have 70 grand in my back pocket for a luxury car anyhow.

  • avatar

    You seem to be missing a few words here –

    “I’d like to know how many times BMW Assist has been summoned by X5 drivers who thought they were opening their sunroofs, since the corresponding buttons are poorly marked, nearly identical, and adjacent to each other in matching wells, for no apparent reason other than BMW’s ever-questionable ideas regarding aesthetics.”

    What is the other button?

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    LOL, every time I took the parking brake off in the Hummer H3… I ended up popping the hood.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    The other possibility, not mentioned, of more complex gadgets is that if they are too complex, people will simply not use them.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman


    Actually, the new BMWs and Mercedes have turn signal stalks that are 50 to 100 times more annoying than iDrive.

    Baffling, actually.

    Why? You can’t shut the fucking things off.

  • avatar

    August 21st, 2006 at 9:13 am

    why cant all windows in all cars be auto up and down? This drives me crazy sometimes.

    I agree with you that the “auto down” feature should be available on all windows — it is a trivial thing to add.

    But I know why the “auto up” feature is only available in higher-end cars like Audi. If a window has the “auto up” feature, it should also have a pinch sensor to detect if am object is between the glass and the window frame as the glass is moving up, and these sensors are expensive. If you don’t have the sensor, your hand (or more likely your kid’s finger) can get snipped off or crushed.

    btw, Audi haptics/ergonomics rock. Among other things, I love the placement of the steering wheel control buttons — they’re just perfect for your thumbs without moving your hands on the wheel. And also, I love the intuitive placment of controls in Honda vehicles. I read somewhere that even if you had never driven a Honda, you’ll be able to find the controls without any need to think — this is indeed true.

  • avatar

    I think that you reviewing types just drive too many cars and it warps your ability to review for the “pedestrian” driver. I drive the same car day in and day out for years, and certainly don’t mind or have a problem with complicated or involved controls.

    My parents had a Peugeot 505 when I was younger, and I remember reading a review that slammed the side-mirror controls because they were hidden out of sight below the armrest on the door. I was stunned by the review because I thought that those controls were beautiful. It took a little to adjust to them, but you could adjust them while sitting back in the chair, instead of having to reach forward to the dash.

    Bring on the gadgets on my new car and keep my drive interesting for more than a week.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman


    My friend owns a 545i.

    He doesn’t use the iDrive. He set the climate control to auto and uses the windows to regulate the temp.

  • avatar


    You say to put Steve Jobs on the case. Agree, completely! For intuitive design Apple’s products are hard to beat (9 Macs to date, 4 currently living, 3 iPods in this house.) even my most technically challenged kid has no issues with a Mac.

    I also think if auto makers paid as much attention to ergos as they do to the curb appeal tested in car clinics they might find some differences in what people want. Further, with all the safety mania these days, it’s surprising that some insurance or consumer watch dog group hasn’t brought this issue up and made a case for standardization.

    Some things in cars are a reflection of country of origin. Japanese cars often have small buttons and knobs that require bare hands, while many controls in Euro cars can be operated while wearing gloves. A minor thing, except when you are trying to adjust something when it’s -20 and the heat hasn’t gotten going.

    FWIW, the manual for my ’96 Saab 9000 is under 100 pages. The one for my ’03 9-5 wagon is about twice that. There’s a lot of coverage of the gadgets, and the car doesn’t even have a lot of gee-whiz BS.

  • avatar

    I was playing around with computers (commodore 64 to be exact) since I was 5 years old. Now, at 23 I currently work at a software firm and spend quite a bit of time on computers, not only at work, but at home as well. Also, I am interested in the technical aspects of technology.

    That being said, I remember shopping for my current car and visiting my local Audi and BMW dealerships, sitting in the cars with in-car knob control devices and trying to figure out how to change a station, or use the radio’s advance settings, or turn on the navigation system. It was pretty damn complex, and it took so much time that I realized that if I was driving at the time, I most likely would have crashed.

    Thus, I did not get the Nav system option on my car when I bought it (an A4). Sure, the Nav on the A4 uses a less intrusive version of MMI (even though the knob is far away and not as UI as the Nav knob / buttons found on the A6 / A8). Frankly, I don’t want a car with incredibly complex computer systems, I find them too complex to use while driving, and I work in the software field! Imagine being 60 years old and trying to figure out how to maneuver the iDrive, or MMI, or Command while driving at the same time…it’s a recipe for disaster.


  • avatar

    Depress clutch pedal to start engine.

    How about shift into reverse to remove key from ignition.

  • avatar

    As the cognitive psychology guy here, I have been waiting for such an article to be written. There are so many issues that could be brought up here that it merits many articles.

    There are tests available to quantify our interfaces in terms of ease-of-learning, speed-of-operation, and memorability. Unfortunately, because few people buy based upon usability, there is no incentive for car companies to forward the money toward doing the extensive studies that they should be doing for the sake of safety (there are some studies, don’t get me wrong on that–but they are not balanced with the amount of tech that is being added).

    What amazes me is that usability ultimately is a safety issue, but it is not regulated or systematically rated in a way that is effective. Thus, people will buy a vehicle for a crash test rating, but will not even consider the interface as a potential hazard-making issue. There are also a number of poor interfaces that are due to poor labeling. I surveyed the autoshow one year and discovered a mish-mash of inconsistent labels for a number of features (interior light dimmers were especially bad–and they have to be done well because they are nothing that people can often recall–they have to be recognized). Many of these labels were inconsistent within a single brand.

    Ultimately, we want the vehicle to behave as an extension of ourselves with as little intrusion as possible. However, if there were no “intrusions” (and things operated at a behaviorally optimal efficiency), then we would probably lose some of the “wow” factor that makes you notice the vehicle in enjoyable ways.
    This is the fight I see…making you notice nice touches (for emotional satisfaction and aesthetic satisfaction) but with a responsible slant toward behavioral efficiency (and safety) as the primary design goal.
    I honestly think there is a market for usable design and that the first company that makes a usable car and markets it as such will gain sales because of it.

  • avatar
    Josh Brannon

    chanman, sorry, I could have made that a little more clear — the BMW Assist button and the sunroof button are the near-identical buttons.

    neilberg, with such a positive response to this article, I hope to write more on the subject. And if you have the chance, study the controls of a Volvo. Sometimes they’re unconventional, but usually they’re pretty brilliant — down to such simple things as automatically turning off the foglights and high-beam headlights every time you start the car. Or putting the Nav screen at a high position that pops out of the top of the dash (less distance for which to avert your eyes from the road), canted toward the passenger compartment so it can’t glare from the sun, with controls on the back of the steering wheel so that the driver doesn’t have to take his/her hands off the wheel (with duplicate controls on a wireless remote for passenger use). Incredibly well thought out, I’m sure due in no small part to both their safety and Scandinavian design heritages.

  • avatar

    I really enjoyed this article, I definalty see what you mean. I am sort of a weird geek, I guess. While I enjoy tech-packed stuff, I hate menus. Things like the radio, Climate Control, and basic simple things that are adjusted all the time should have dedicated buttons. Period. But I don’t mind learning new UI’s if they are logical and make sense, then its fun.

    One thing I never understood (seriously, could anyone explain this?) is why on some manual cars you have to push a release button by the ignition switch to switch into lock pos./remove the key. Any ideas?

  • avatar
    Frank Williams

    Chadillac, the ignition lock on cars with column shifts have a mechanism that locks the shift lever when it locks the steering column, and the interlock also keeps you from taking the key out unless the transmission is in Park. On some cars with floor shifts (both manuals and automatics) they’re too cheap to redesign the locking mechanism (or put in a cable or electric interlock). Since the shift lever won’t trip the interlock, they put a release button on there that you have to activate manually as you turn the key.

  • avatar

    When I first switched from my 2001 GTI to my 2000 M Coupe, I missed my trip computer and other doodads. But I love going back to a simple three-knob HVAC from the GTI’s fiddly computerized whatsit that always forced me to squint down at the screen while I was trying to drive. in the BMW, my eyes never have to leave the road to adjust anything, really. it’s all tactile.

    though it’s too bad neither one of them can design a cupholder to save their lives.

  • avatar

    Safety concerns aside, I think the layout of the car (all the features, buttons, interface) is what makes that car…that car. It’d be boring if every car had the same interior layout.

  • avatar

    Car companies love to tell you they only design and manufacture vehicles with features that customers “demand.”

    Sorry, I don’t recall anyone demanding computerized switches and LCD screens so complicated as to defeat their intended purpose of replacing analog dials and knobs with more efficient controls.

    It sure doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out if you need to scroll, press, pull, jiggle or whatever six times to get to an intended outcome while driving guess what… it’s a distraction, unsafe and less efficient!

    BTW, just what is the rationale for installing digitial controls. Normally when devices and interfaces are employed they provide inherent user benefits.

    Since most are neither cheaper, easier to use or more reliable, etc, sort of defeats the purpose?

    That is unless you’re the automaker charging a bundle to install or replace these.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    About a decade ago, I noticed that the so-called climate control systems – will any of them end global warming? – were getting so absurdly arcane, especially in the German cars, that when I got a new vehicle to test, I simply never used them. And having come of age in the 1970s, gas mileage has always been an issue with me; so I just try to figure out how to turn off the air conditioning.
    Admittedly, it’s a Hobson’s Choice, but I simply run around with the driver’s window all the way down, and the passenger’s side, about half-way down. Yes, that cuts into mileage also – so is said. But I can’t help but feel it is much less than with the damn air conditioning blowing cold.
    Besides, when I get a drop top coupe, such as the BMW M3 I have now, the best way to stay cool is put the top down and go – fast as legally possible.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Correction: believe the BMW I have is the M4. It’s the Banglized “roadster.” (Real roadsters don’t have roll-up-and-down windows. Vintage auto buffs know this.)

  • avatar

    Thank you Cavendel.
    The placement of controls in cars can be arbitrary as long as they follow some basic, broad guidelines (freaquently used controls are more prominent, all controls easily reachable/seeable if nec., etc.).
    People buy a car, drive it repeatedly and after one, two, or a hundred times the controls can be memorized and everything is fine. We don’t need to standardize controls just to satisfy a special interest group (i.e. car journalists). Sorry =)
    Having said that, a recent Taurus rental had a sunroof control that was very very well hidden.

  • avatar

    People who may complain about the small buttons of climate controls can find their ideal match in a 2002-06 Honda CR-V or Element: 3 huge rotating buttons and 3 push buttons control the climate in those beasts :-)

  • avatar
    Jan Andersson

    Ergonomics is, the more you consider it, very important. Why is the key slot located to the right of the steering column? Because most people are right-handed. My son is a lefty and think it’s stupid, and I think he is right. A left-hand key slot makes it easy to start the engine without sitting down in the drivers’ seat, or to take the key out, or even check that it is taken out if you can’t find it in the pocket. It also makes it impossible for a (disturbed)passenger to remove the key when you drive. And I guess that the risk of (knee) injury in an accident will be reduced.

  • avatar

    I like fine automobiles, but sometimes the old engineer’s credo of “simpler is better” makes the most sense. The plethora of gadgets and buttons do little or nothing to make my driving experience a better one.

    Take, for example, radios. I’d like to switch my stock GM radio to a Sirius-compatible aftermarket unit (the new Sirius-GM box doesn’t work in my car), but most aftermarket units have a display made up of dozens of tiny buttons, with a Vegas-style display to light up the center of the dash at night. What’s wrong with a simply display, two big knobs, five big buttons and a few small buttons to control the things I never adjust (such as left-right balance)?

    But back to OEM interior features: What’s up with LCD odomters in most cars? Maybe I’m missing something, but I fail to see the advantage. I have to log my mileage when I use my personal car (a Pontiac Vibe, or “Vibtrix,” as I call it) for company business. Sometimes I forget to record the ending mileage until I get out of the car, and I have to 1) unlock the door, 2) open the door, 3) insert and turn the key, 5) read the mileage, 6) turn and remove the key, 7) close the door, 8) lock the car. In my old Ford Ranger all I had to do was 1) look into the window on the driver’s side and read the mileage. Sure, I like the Toyota interior, but sometimes simpler IS better.

    And as for standardizing certain safety-related controls: Don’t get me started on the turn-signal stalk horn buttons that were popular with Ford in the early 1980’s, and with French manufacturers long before and since…

  • avatar

    I am on my second iDrive BMW..I had a 645Ci for a couple of years and now have an M6.

    (1) Virtually no writeup adequately describes the amazingly powerful voicwe recognition. I can change radio,CD,use the telephone and so on without taking my hands off the wheel.

    (2) I tend to use the iDrive for setup stuff when I am stopped..i.e. programming the M button. I do not look at the dash – I drive very hard and have just brought the car back from the Nurburgring..

    (3) The M owners boards report few if any problems with iDrive. is it intuitive?-nope. Can it be learned by someone of average intelligence in a couple of hours? sure.

    Here is a quick link to a vid I took of running the M6 at over 200mph n the autobahn..I found the heads up display to be invaluable ,though itsnot visible on the vid. It was a godsend on the RIng..

    If I had to look down at the iDrive this would have been ..unwise…

    I also have a COMAND system in my SL500 and somethingsles in the Touareg. Ther is a valid issue of remembering the various systems, but you get used to it.

  • avatar

    Just like to mention a couple of things on this my first post here (longtime lurker): the elegance and functionality of my TIVO remote, and the simplicity (I thought primitive until I read the article) of my Subaru’s controls–they’re almost retro, or maybe that was the idea.

  • avatar

    Ergonomics. I live for this stuff. Or perhaps I should say, I live this stuff, since I work as a motion graphics designer for websites and other online projects. I think about “usability” and “human factors engineering” every day. It’s what I do. And just like a conductor can’t listen to a symphony orchestra without noticing if the french horns are in tune, I can’t get into a car without noticing it’s ergonomics. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an ergonomics snob. Hell, I drive a Jeep Wrangler, about the most un-ergonomic car ever built.

    If I’ve learned anything about ergonomics, it’s that it is the little things that make a BIG difference. Take my ’97 Wrangler, for instance. Seat belt retractors. DMX can’t make ’em right to save their souls. Mirror brackets. Huh? Oh, you wanted to actually SEE out of your side-views, with the zipper windows IN PLACE? And my pet peeve: seat adjusters. I’m 6’4″. Do you think a manufacturer could spend another 50 cents on a seat slider and fix it so I could move the friggin’ seat back to where I don’t have to straddle the steering wheel with my knees? Seriously!

    So I wait, with anticipation for the release of the new Wranglers. Do they get the seat belt retractors, mirrors, and seat adjustments right this time? Stay tuned…

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    BuzzDog, the reason for LCD odometers is that it’s virtually impossible to fiddle with them, while even I can subtract 100,000 miles from a mechanical odometer using a few common tools.

  • avatar

    One more cognitive psyc comment…
    Something that people have trouble accepting is that controls are based upon numerical scales and that there is such a thing as an appropriate control-to-input mapping.

    -A knob that has two end points is appropriate for a scale that has two endpoints (e.g. volume, fan speed). Such a knob would be inappropriate for setting the clock (because the clock “wraps around”). Likewise, using an infinite end knob (one without stops) does not make sense for volume because one has to look to see when the software indicates that the end has been reached.
    -Slider switches or exclusive-type “radio button (for those familiar with software design)” buttons work better than knobs for categorical selection because the knob implies that there is an underlying continuous scale (e.g. HVAC zone on a knob implies that the categories are organized on a continuum, whereas this is less so if an “all out except for the one that is pushed” buttons is used.”

    Issues: As we integrate more functions into fewer controls, we lose the ability to optimize the mappings between the scale of the object being controlled and the scale of the object being manipulated.

    UnSexy solution: Manual controls gave appropriate feedback more often than not (and they avoided other problems associated with multifunctionality (like “modes”)). The only downside is that each function has its own control, so as functionality is added, the dash starts looking busy. However, this aesthetic downside has the ergonomic benefit of allowing for strong spatial mapping.

    Example: The heater knob can be hooked onto a valve that controls inflow to the heater core as opposed to a adding an interface onto a computer-controlled system that operates a servo to accomplish the same goal.

    Personally, I find that the best mappings are found on low-end cars and that the higher the price goes, the worse the mapping gets. When we get to iDrive situations, there is little concern over mapping at all–everything uses the same control without regard for the scale of the system being controlled.

  • avatar
    John K

    What if Microsoft designed this stuff? Push Start to turn off?

    The one thing I haven’t seen mentioned is why isn’t the side you put gas in standardized? Some Mazda’s have them on driver’s side, some passenger side. You’d think they’d be the same from the same manufacturer! I often pull up to the wrong side when putting gas in the wife’s car. I’m not the only one, I see others doing it all the time.

  • avatar

    Today I spent 2.5 hours going to a meeting in a coleague’s Saab 9-3 Aero Convertible… And 2.5 hours driving back. Now I thought the Swedes had ergonomics licked?! Not so. Just a few things: The passenger window switch slightly protrudes exactly where my hand wanted to be on the door. Rest it ever so slightly too much and you drop the window! The car had auto wipers and thus sensors but there was no way (like in any VW/Audi) to adjust the auto sensor’s sensitivity. Thus he was constantly going from auto to speed 1 or speed 2 to just get the windscreen cleared. On a VW/Audi the tiny adjuster on top of the wiper stalk adjust either the intermittent speed on non auto cars or the sensitivety of the auto set-up whilst also adjusting all this to vehicle speed. Brilliant. Even on a non auto wiper setup (like mine) the intermittent is always just right. I drove a Ford once with 6 speed settings for the intermittent wipers and I thought hell that is 2 more than my Audi! Pah! They were not speed sensitive at all so the moment you stopped the wipers where going way way too fast… Small tiny detail and yes the speed sensor costs money (like the anti-pinch auto window up features) but the more and more things like this I discover the more I realise why some cars are just a bit more expensive than others… An Audi or BMW may have fewer “normal” features than a similarly priced VW or Honda but add all these little things and the price is well worth it I think…

    Back to the Saab: the worst thing I noticed though was that he had to take his hands off the wheel to twirl a WHEEL on the dashboard to just access the trip computer!!! How unsafe is that?! Again on any VW/Audi it is just a button press away either up or down without moving your hand from the wheel at the end of your wiper stalk…

    God is in the details I say.

  • avatar
    Josh Brannon

    BuzzDog, Chrysler actually solved your problem with LCD odometers at least as far back as 1998 — a tug on the outside driver’s door handle turns on the odometer display (whether the car is locked or not).

    neilberg, I’ll probably be writing a whole article on the superiority of the single-use knob as an interface device. What’s particularly interesting about iDrive is that BMW’s engineers did take note of the tactile feedback aspects both of turning the knob and of reaching the endpoint of adjustment, and created synthetic force-feedback response in the iDrive knob to mimic these. That they got some of the details right but the big picture completely wrong is one of the reasons that I believe that iDrive was most likely a forced creation from someone in BMW uppper management who didn’t know a good interface from, well, Windows CE (which was — originally, at least — underneath the iDrive experience)

    Microsoft press release of iDrive running on WinCE

    Johann, I wouldn’t blame the Swedes — the Saab auto wipers functioned that way because that’s what was in GM’s corporate parts bin. And there really is no excuse for no speed sensitivity — in modern CANbus equipped cars (and often earlier) a body control computer controls both the speedometer and the wipers anyway, so speed sensitivity is just a software issue. But while Ford bought Volvo largely to use as an R&D lab (Ford has taken entire platforms from Volvo, to say nothing of many safety technologies including Roll Stability Control), GM just let Saab languish to the point where they’re barely more than several-year-old, slightly restyled Opels, Chevys, and Subarus. I would love to see what Saab could do if given a little reprieve from the beancounters.

  • avatar

    Stanshih wrote: “People buy a car, drive it repeatedly and after one, two, or a hundred times the controls can be memorized and everything is fine.” Maybe back in the 1950s people might buy “a” car, but this is 2006 and people buy “many” cars. There are 1.3 cars per driver in my household which means when I go out I’m never quite sure which one I’ll find in the driveway and/or with any gas in the tank. (Perhaps you too have a teenage daughter.)

    Anyway, I really don’t want to think about which buttons to push for basic operations like turning headlights and windshield wipers on or off. I want car manufacturers to recognize that their best customers own more than one vehicle and tend to change them often. I just bought a new car for my wife in large part because I liked its ergonomics and intuitive controls.

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    I just spent five days driving two VW Eos convertibles around the Monterey Peninsula. The car has an odd top-operation control that’s a U-shaped thing like some kind of suitcase latch, on the aft end of the center console. Do you pull it or push it to put the top down? I sure couldn’t intuit anything from it. In fact you push it. And if you pull in instead, the windows go into motion, so you initially think you’ve done the right thing even though you’ve got it backward.

    After five days with the cars, I still couldn’t remember which was correct. And I suspect come March or April, a lot of Eos owners who haven’t used the thing in five months won’t remember either. So much for “memorizing” controls.

  • avatar

    Ha! Just read this on the new revised Saab 9-3 interiors!

    And one of themany changes is moving the stupid dash mounted wheel “button” to access the trip computer to the steering wheel! They do have sense afterall!

  • avatar
    Michael Ayoub

    My Honda Fit is pretty damn easy to use. My S2000 was easier still.

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