No Fixed Abode: Instrument (Panels) Of Torture

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

This is the story. Brother Bark and I knew a fellow. At one point, he’d been kind of a big deal in the Columbus, Ohio music scene; he called himself, and the others like him, Franklin County Municipal Rock Stars. At the age of 30, he quit that scene and he quit drinking while he was at it. Got a job in Washington, D.C. as a cubicle drone. Bought himself a new Thunderbird. Paid it off in four years. Then he lost his job in the post-September-11th fallout. Ran out of money in a hurry. Moved into a tiny apartment with his girlfriend. Couldn’t afford to leave the house much. He was starting to recognize the signs of incipient agoraphobia in the way he trembled when it was time to go outside and get the mail.

He still had the ‘Bird. It was in good shape. Just six years old. His girlfriend’s car broke down. She started driving his car to work; he wasn’t using it anyway. Some days he didn’t even leave his bedroom. One day the phone at home rang. It was his girlfriend. The ‘Bird was dead. She’d been driving it down the freeway and BANG smoke GRIND silence rolling to a stop.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she said. “I should have changed the oil when it told me to.”

“The Thunderbird told you to change the oil?” our friend asked. He didn’t know it could do that.

“Yes, three weeks ago it started showing the red light that means change the oil.” It was then, according to our friend, that he hung up the phone and started sobbing. He sold The Bird for scrap. The girlfriend left him. He took a Greyhound back to Ohio and moved into a rural basement outside Kenyon College, living on old friends’ charity and doing whatever work he could accomplish without walking outside. The next time he left the house for any substantial length of time, it was to volunteer for the campaign of Barack Obama, five long years later.

“How,” he asked Bark plaintively, “could she have thought that the light meant change the oil?”

My guess is that most of the B&B know what a red genie’s-lamp icon means, should you see it appear on your car’s dashboard. If you don’t, AutoZone has a helpful list. Many of the indicators are somewhat self-explanatory: even our old pal’s dippy girlfriend intuited somehow that the symbol meant oil. She just didn’t consider the possibility that the light meant low oil pressure, stop the car NOW. She thought that any situation serious enough to require an immediate switch-off of the engine would be announced by something bigger, brighter, and more serious-looking than a tiny, little Aladdin’s lamp in the corner of the dashboard.

Can you really blame her for this? Think about any technology with which you have only middling familiarity; perhaps it’s your iPhone, perhaps it’s some machine or system at work, perhaps it’s your television. If you saw a small pictogram, smaller than a dime, pop up somewhere on the screen, would you immediately shut everything down post haste? If you failed to do so, and your phone or TV or pacemaker exploded, would you be completely befuddled by that? Would you feel responsible, or would you think such a situation requires a more explicit warning?

This is, for better or worse, a situation where the auto industry has not kept up with the world around it. A hundred years ago, it was expected that an automobile would require special training to operate and specialized skills to diagnose, because the automobile was the successor of the horse and everybody knew that horses required constant attention from their owners. Virtually all technologies available to human beings at that time were either difficult to operate or outright dangerous. Attempting to operate anything from a mechanical loom to a Duesenberg without getting proper instruction was considered to be the mark of a peculiar idiot and whatever consequences attended such attempts were considered to be a sign of God’s will.

Fifty years ago, it was expected that a driver should at least know what all the potential operation states of his or her vehicle were, because that was the expectation of 1966-era technology. There was an expectation that some safety was built into the product, but the operator was still primarily responsible for knowing what the vehicle could or should do.

So our 1916-era driver could be expected to know how to diagnose most engine problems via sound or examination, and the 1966-era driver could be expected to be alert for an oil pressure light. What about the modern driver? Nowadays, we encourage children to “explore” technology. We have unleashed a cascade of fast-changing devices and requirements upon normal human beings and told them to figure it out using a help menu or through their own exploration. Speaking personally, the next time I hear some idiot tech manager saying that “You need to go home and play with (insert name of dumb-ass tech fad-o’-the-week here, maybe ‘DevOps’ or ‘Cloud’) until you’re comfortable with it,” I might just commit aggravated assault. But the idea that you learn to use modern technology by starting to use it and then figuring it out as you go along is very well embedded in our society.

You can argue that a modern vehicle should unequivocally tell the driver what to do in any situation that falls outside the context of normal operation. Low oil? Don’t tell the driver “low oil”; tell the driver to STOP THE CAR NOW. Is a tire going down? Don’t flash a tire warning: tell the driver to PULL OVER NOW AND INSPECT TIRES. There’s no reason that every car currently on the market can’t feature a small LCD screen that can flash red and tell the driver what to do if something is going wrong.

This needs to be implemented sensibly. I recently drove a GM SUV that must have been programmed by a drooling moron. When I started it, it told me that WINDSHIELD WASHER FLUID IS LOW. I knew that, and it was a sunny day, so I continued to drive the car. After a while, I got sick of seeing the warning, so I pressed the “check mark” button on the dash (and how long would it take the average non-GM owner to figure that out?) at which point my SUV helpfully told me



You have to both laugh and sneer at the idea of the dumb-ass at Government Motors who thought a windshield-wiper fluid level warning should take precedence over a critically low tire. But when I see programming decisions like that, I realize that sooner or later the government is going to get involved because otherwise that kind of stupidity will get someone killed. Obviously I stopped and filled the tire, but what if I had been a young mother with two kids in the car who didn’t see the tire warning until I was 100 miles into a 300-mile trip? What would I do? How would I interpret that warning? Would I even recognize it as such?

It’s time to implement a modern standard of warning symbols. We need to replace the 18 universal symbols with direct instructions that an untrained driver can understand. You can feel as superior as you like about this, but you’ll benefit too. As you cruise down the highway in your idiot-light-free vintage car or oil-pressure-gauge-equipped Porsche, wouldn’t you prefer to have the Tahoe behind you driving on properly inflated tires? Don’t you want your friends and family to be safe, even at the cost of dashboard aesthetics? What could my old friend have done in his Thunderbird had it just told his girlfriend to STOP THE CAR?

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Paragon Paragon on Jul 10, 2016

    Within the last 6 weeks, a young female (mother of a small child) I know asked me to check her oil. I pulled out the dipstick and there was no oil on it. I wiped it off and checked again. No oil. She tells me she would drive to the nearby WalMart to buy some oil. I said, no, don't take any more chances. Stay here and I'll drive to get some oil. Which I did, and I put it in the engine. Lately her job has her working from home on the computer. But not too long before, when she was driving to work, she often left the apartment too late and told me she would drive 80 mph to work on the freeway (where the speed limit is 70). She seems to have dodged a bullet for now. Oh, she did get pulled over for speeding once, but the officer wrote her up for not wearing a seat belt rather than for speeding. Forgot to mention her car is one of the many last generation of the 10-plus year old Ford Taurus mid-sized sedans. Will have to ask her if there wasn't a dash light warning lit up. Which is probably what finally motivated her to ask me to check the oil.

  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Jul 12, 2016

    Reading all the comments above, it's obvious: too many people are too stupid to own driver's licenses, much less own cars. States COULD include grading prospective drivers on the instrument panel during the road test, but a simple test of logical reasoning would be a far better measure of fitness to drive. Ignorance is one thing, but an inability to grasp cause and effect goes far beyond the maintenance issue.

  • ToolGuy "and leaves auto dealers feeling troubled" ...well this is terrible. Won't someone think of the privileged swindlers??
  • ToolGuy "Selling as I got a new car and don't need an extra." ...Well that depends on what new car you chose, doesn't it? 😉
  • El scotto The days of "Be American, buy America" are long gone. Then there's the mental gymnastics of "is a Subaru made in Lafayette, IN more American than something from gm or Ford made in Mexico?" Lastly, it gets down to people's wallets; something cheap on Amazon or Temu will outsell its costlier American-made item. Price not Patriotism sells most items. One caveat: any US candidate should have all of his/her goods made in the USA.
  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.