I'm a 28-year-old gadget nerd. Like many of my generation, I don't often read instruction manuals. In dealings with parents, relatives and older friends, I've often struggled to wrap my head around what it is about technology that so fundamentally baffles members of generations past. Is it a fear of experimentation with the unknown? How can something that feels imprinted on my DNA be so utterly foreign to someone else? It's a feeling shared by any son or daughter visiting home who, after a quick hug from mom and dad, is led unsubtly by the arm over to the computer desk: "Fix this. Please."
But recently I've had some illuminating moments of empathy. And they've all come behind the wheel.
I haven't owned a car since I was in college (a 1989 Toyota Corolla--White Fang, rest in peace), but being on good terms with Popular Science's automotive editor comes with the occasional perk: I sometimes find myself with a new car to help test with a run to the grocery store or a quick road trip weekend. My promiscuity with many cars, rather than the reliably monogamous relationship most people have with one or two, has allowed me to frequently recreate the moment of first sitting down in an unfamiliar cockpit. Which means: I am frequently very confused inside an automobile. This confusion can take many forms.
Discomfort: After licking my lips at a torquey Mercedes E-350 BlueTec diesel (my first time behind the wheel of a Benz), I climbed inside to find that someone with a frame considerably smaller than my 6'2" had driven this beauty previously. No big deal, I thought, as I crept out of the parking garage into Midtown Manhattan traffic, hunched over the wheel. I've adjusted many a seat. But as I fumbled with the powered controls in what I thought was the universal-standard position—below the seat on the left side—I found all manner of lower lumbar support options, but nothing to slide the seat back. I remained hilariously hunched for the next 30 minutes, before realizing on the Manhattan bridge that Mercedes likes to put their main seat controls next to the door handle.
Mild Panic: As I pulled into a moderately skeezy parking spot in Queens in the same Mercedes later that weekend, I unexpectedly found myself unable to lock the door. I pressed the button on the electronic proximity-sensing key fob and heard the doors' latches lock. But upon pulling the handle to test, the door opened. This charade repeated several times, enough to start thinking that maybe I wouldn't be able to leave this car unattended. It wasn't until I gave my companion the key and had her step away from the vehicle that I realized the door was opening because the proximity sensor knew I was holding the key.
Frustration: Like many nicely furnished new cars, a Volkswagen Touareg I recently drove was equipped with another kind of proximity sensor—one that detects objects near your bumpers while the car is traveling at low speeds, beeping and lowering the sound system's volume if it thinks you're due for a fender bender. A nice feature. Nice, that is, until you find yourself in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Whitestone Bridge leaving the Bronx. There, we found our music volume fading out (and, curiously, not returning to its previous level) every few minutes, as the sensors detected the bumpers of our fellow frustrated gridlock victims. Even in standstill traffic, my passenger and I could not coax the touchscreen control panel to turn off this feature.
Helplessness: In a Mitsubishi Outlander driving in a decent rain shower, I fell victim to another smart feature that adjusts the speed of your windshield wipers in relation to how fast the car is moving. Like many drivers, I am particular about the frequency of my wipers—and yet my settings wouldn't stick. Until I found and switched myself out of Automatic mode on the wiper stem, I was beginning to entertain the idea that I had lost my mind.
Absurdity: Back in the Touareg, my driving companion plugs his iPhone into the audio system via docking cable in the glove box. "Good Thing" by Fine Young Cannibals immediately plays. It turns out, the system auto-plays by default the first song on the first playlist when it detects a connected iPod or iPhone. Needless to say, we became extremely well acquainted with the jangly opening bars of "Good Thing" that weekend.
Before this starts sounding too much like something from the desk of Andy Rooney, let me state plainly that smarter cars are a welcome development in the automotive world. The gadgetification of our cars has happened extremely fast, and it shows no sign of slowing. But my confusion should not be taken as a general cause for worry—I'm sure all of the features that puzzled me initially can be tweaked to suit my needs and tastes, after a bit of stationary fiddling and manual-reading.
And for every confounding new feature, there are those that effortlessly improve the driving experience. The rear-facing backup camera, which I find in just about every new car I drive, makes parallel parking in a modern vehicle one of driving's most satisfying moments. And blind spot indicator lights in the side view mirrors, like those on a Mazda 6 I drove, are extremely useful when switching lanes in city traffic.
The greater point, then, is that I'm not used to feeling lost inside a new system. Each of the conditions above is unique in the type of resulting road rage, but they all have a common factor: confusion. It's almost refreshing for someone like me to be reminded of this feeling—one experienced by millions of people as they more frequently encounter technology in their lives in new, unfamiliar places.
But it also poses a challenge to the auto industry: make the increasingly sophisticated technology inside our cars easier to use. Features like blind spot indicators make driving safer, but I'd argue that tapping through a touchscreen to find out why the stereo keeps beeping might cancel out such a gain. Are we safer, then, on aggregate? I would think so, but from my outsider's perspective on new cars, there are times when it feels like we're not.
In an automobile, the fearless experimentation that allows a younger person to be more comfortable with technology is reduced—there's only so much exploratory fiddling you can do at 60 mph. With the playing field so leveled, automakers must work even harder for simpler interfaces that require little to no familiarity or advanced knowledge to operate.
Because behind the wheels of our cars, for safety's sake, we should all feel like master technophiles.
I kinda know what he means. Not that I have driven any new cars, but I have been in them, and I am an AUTO nut so I stay on top of care news all the time (avid Top Gear fan).
I love the Nissan GTR for example, but I have never driven one. A lot of car people on the net hate them becuase they are so electronicly driven. It can out preforme most cars on the market twice its price (or even 4 times its price in a few cases). Many of the slower cars are actually lighter and have more HP under the hood. Nissan gave the car insane electronics that control everything, even a luanch control. Becuase of all this the car preforms better than all but 9 production cars in the entire world (according to Top Gears testing). A lot of car nuts prefer a simple car. Power and traction. I am told with BMW m5 you have to spend over an hour or 2 with iDrive computer system just get all of the 500 hp avialble to the driver that the engien is suppose to promise. You have to UNLOCK it with complicated sports settings and the such. whats up with that.
The funny thing. I drive a 13 year old 200hp Prelude SiR (japan only model). The car cost me about 4k$ and I put 800$ sport tires on it. I drive harder and have more fun than 9 our out 10 guys who own sports cars worth 10 times my car. I dont know... I am the type of guy who believes it what you, not what you do it with. Who cares about all the electronics if you are not even going to use them.
Its like windows 2000, vista, and 7. Whats the point??? why fix whats not broken?
You are missing the point of the article. He is talking about the electronics of the vehicle. Anyway, I know exactly what he means, and some cars offer these features more "ergonomicly" if you will. I found my wife's Honda 2 door coupe wanted to be a Mercedes, confusing dashboard and all. Controls not intuitive. Got into a loaded Kia Sportage 2011, no problem! Also, I find it helps to think of the car as an electronic device to figure some of these things out!
Mercedes has been using that seat adjust control placement for about 25 years now, at least since the W124 chassis. I will admit the first time I drove a Merc it took a moment, but I looked around and quickly decided that the seat shaped buttons on the door might be worth a try...
I drive a 1988 Corolla, it has power mirrors, power steering and (had) air conditioning, all are easy to use and are reliable. it has 324000 km on it but still drives like new, thanks to the well engineered 4A-GE engines. Great fuel economy too, 6 L/100 KM (~40 mpg to you Americans).
So yeah, why gadgetize when you don't need it?
it scares me just reading all this new tech that goes into a car. i haven't driven a car since 2002...a crappy old off-green toyota celica. i think i'd be as royally f'd and confused if i ever find myself behind the wheel of a suitably modern car.
One thing that will help people operate these and other devices a lot easier and at any age is to read the instructions. Not every technical device can be operated by you, but if you have instructions that show you how, reading them will go a long way to kill off those embarassing user moments.
While the author's description of each of these issues seem heavily based on design flaws, I'm sure he would have seen them coming if he would have spent more time with the user's manual (as he states he is not accustomed to).
However, according to the exponential trends of technological development and Ray Kurzweil's concept of the Singularity, we will all eventually reach a point in our elderly lives where we will not be able to understand the technology in the world around us.
I'm curious to know what the difference is between operating a touch-screen car-control system at 60mph and operating a text keyboard on a cell-phone at 60mph. I really don't see much difference when you consider how much they distract the driver's attention (and view!) from the road.
I'm a big fan of discrete controls in cars. I had a car when I was young that was packed with all kinds of gadgetry (anyone remember what an XT6 is?) and I felt like a fighter pilot driving it. I knew where every control was and I could operate every last one of them without taking my eyes off the road. Try that while scrolling through a touch-screen menu...
The combination of the visual distraction and mental distraction (conversation) is way worse. That is unless you are still figuring out how to use the touch screen. In which case, someone would be an idiot to try to figure it out WHILE driving. Your brain can't register everything you see during conversation. Even if you look directly at it. Inattentional blindness.
I guess people should just figure out how their car works before they drive it. Or better yet, before they BUY it.
".....The funny thing. I drive a 13 year old 200hp Prelude SiR (japan only model). The car cost me about 4k$ and I put 800$ sport tires on it. I drive harder and have more fun than 9 our out 10 guys who own sports cars worth 10 times my car....."
Doesn't the above sentence scream wreck less driver and egotistic as he passes everyone else on the road following the law. What a jerk.
@becosmos - Doesn't the above comment prove that you're quite the ignorant fool yourself? Who cares what that guy does in his Prelude. I've been reading PopSci online for a few months now and I constantly see your comments. You seem to feel it's necessary to provide a comment on every article PopSci posts; this isn't youtube Mt. becosmos. If you want to b|tch and complain with sour opinions take your poor attitude elsewhere. I'm tired of seeing what you post. I wish they'd delete your account.
Funny thing, too - I created an account just to tell you this. It's a shame your profile has restricted access because I'd love to converse with you through email instead of posting a comment like this.
Go back to your telescope @becosmos.
"...there’s only so much exploratory fiddling you can do at 60 mph."
Now, if I was your boss and read this - you would be called in to the office for a dope slap! Who carries the insurance on these vehicles since they are allowing a rank amateur test drive them? It should be a no-brainer, wise guy, to familiarize yourself with any new vehicle before driving off. Perhaps you are like many young people - you can be told - just can't be told very much!
1. I prefer to focus on driving (the ultimate purpose of an automobile) rather than operating the HAL-like computer embedded in it.
2. Manufacturers could deliver the vehicles with all the whiz-bang features defaulted to minimal action. The user could then add enhanced features as he/she adapts to new vehicle, its layout, and idiosyncracies. (windshield wipers,for example)..
3. An effort by manufacturers to standardize the 'user interface' might be of value. We all know where the accelerator,brake, turn indicator, wipers are. Why not place the other 'features' in consistent locations to ease any 'learning curve' on vehicle. As I said above, the purpose of a vehicle is for driving; all else is probably a distraction -- in many cases a dangerous thing.
4. One commentator indicated reading manual as prerequisite for owning a car....Have you ever rented a vehicle? Have you ever been able to find a users manual for that rental?
This is a particular problem if you're often renting cars or driving cars that aren't necessarily known to you. You don't have time to peruse the owner's manual if you've just hopped off a plane and are about to be late to an important meeting in a strange city, and are consumed with getting your GPS to work.
A grouse at age 28, huh? Can you imagine how you'll interpret the world at exactly twice that age?
Or, in other words, at my age.
Hey, I'm not bragging. It's just a statement of fact because as automobiles have grown up, I've grown older and find myself longing for the days of carbs, mechanical points and wiring systems that anyone could jack into. You used to be able to install your own sound systems without having to worry about blacking out the entire east coast!
That's kind of like how my oldest son (34) feels about Windows 7, too. He hates it.
For all its horrible imperfections, the user had a lot more freedom with 95 and 98... before there were so many built-in limitations and automations that took 'choice' and reduced it to a quaint, archaic concept.
Cars were not as mechanically sound as they are today in many respects, but models from the '50s and '60s had personality. That's probably something this modern 21st century could use in a lot of places.
"2. Manufacturers could deliver the vehicles with all the whiz-bang features defaulted to minimal action. The user could then add enhanced features as he/she adapts to new vehicle, its layout, and idiosyncracies. (windshield wipers,for example).."
The automotive industry wants self driving cars and they know people would be to apprehensive about buying a self driving car currently even though the technology exists (Google's self driving car has never had an accident while it was in control). So they're slowly automating all of a cars features to move us towards that goal.
Otherwise, yes, it would make sense to make automated features opt-in rather than opt-out as they are now.
My "new" car -- newest I've ever owned -- is a 1997 Mercury, a Grand Marquis; the local cops think I'm a Fed. But even a '97 had the seat controls on the door.
Some years of business travel and rental cars will make anyone suspicious of a new (to the driver) vehicle. Sometimes, I even read the manual.
I, too, have two "blind spot indicator[s]" in my '01 Mercury: they're called "fish eyes". And they don't cost several hundred dollars to fix when they stop working. Ditto for my crank windows and hand-levered seats. And I take great pride when I parallel park my behemoth by looking over my shoulder and executing the maneuver myself, without the aid of a back-up camera. The problem with advanced electronics is (1) they often solve a non-existent problem (like shopping cart wipes or bottled water) and (2) they cost $$ to replace - no going to the nearest junkyard and swapping out parts.
The problem is... that the majority of Americans can't 'drive'! You've only got to see them on the continent, wetting themselves because they're approaching a roundabout, a busy junction, without signs telling them exactly what to do, in fact, anything that demands even moderate driving skills.
Forget getting uptight that someone hasn't read the manual, or who's paying the insurance. It's the car, stupid!
Does it make you just have to slip behind the wheel every hour of every day and every night?; does it make you want to take the curves, the straights, the dips, the highs?; does it make you just have to feel that incredible exhilaration as you floor the throttle, again, and again, because that's what driving should be about, not the gizmos, or the marque, but pure, unadulterated driving ecstasy.
The opinion of and review by a 28-year-old who doesn't drive, and whose last car was a 1989 Corolla, is not much more than worthless. Anyone who can't find the seat switches in an MB which, like another reader pointed out, have been in the same place (and look like a seat!) for decades, should not be allowed behind the wheel of a car. And clearly only an idiot would get under way in the streets of NYC before adjusting the seats and mirrors.
This article was as much of a waste of my time as any of those "auto reviews" that MarketWatch and other financial rags insist on publishing.
Your nick is apt. I like how you waste even more of your time by commenting ;)
The Merc abbreviation took me back to my Mercury days.
I did not think about the "Mercerdeez"
Hah.....I guess I am just a "youngfogie"...
I refer to this as the 6 month learning curve. With tech changing all the time and new gadgets being added to our lives, we can't expect everything to work the way "we" think it's suppose to work brand new out of the box or the first time we drive it. It's time we learn we must "learn" how something works so we can actually use the item the way it's suppose to be used. No one is forcing the guy with the bad attitude to use the wonderful new tech that fills our lives. There's plenty of dumb as a stump items still out there. Meanwhile why can't he find some enjoyment in the new wonders we now call common day such as cars with amazing features, IPads and smart phones and even computers with capabilities that surpass anything we had on our desktops even 3 years ago. I love being alive today. To bad this one sour grape isn't. Now pardon me, I have some cloud computing to do on one of my other toys.
Can almost hear my 28 year old son commenting to his aging parents in another city that they need to join the current generation - "Ditch the PC, get a Mac"! New technology is available at such an alarming speed that makes it difficult for anyone to keep up and as you might be starting to realize, especially so as we grow, shall we say, more mature. Keep up the good work - enjoyed your article!
The reason older people have trouble adapting to new technology is that they have over the course of their lives learned so many different types of interfaces i.e. ways of interacting with or controlling technology. The mind retains the "muscle memory" of massively repeated actions even decades after you stopped using them. Each time you use a new interface, especially a new interface to an old function, your muscle memory tries to default back to old interface which causes hesitation and confusion.
For 14 years, on the Mac, command-n combination created a new folder in the Finder. After the switch to MacOS X command-n switched to creating a new Finder window. I haven't used MacOS Classic for at least 10 years and yet I still occasionally try to create folders with command-n.
Heck, I haven't used a rotary phone in over 25 years yet sometimes when I'm tired or distracted I find my fingers making circular motions over a phone's keypad.
Older people aren't stupid or unadaptable, they just have to cut through all the nosie caused by the vast amounts of stuff they learned previously. Since young people don't know anything, they don't have much previous behavior to unlearn.