LINDSAY CHAPPELL

Can't we make things a bit simpler?

COMMENTARY
Lindsay Chappell is Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News. This is one of several staff blogs posted on our Web site recently.
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My wish for the new year is that the auto industry will get its act together on electronics and cabin controls.

As in: Just put a doggone "OFF" switch on the thing.

Who out there thinks I want to go through two display screens to reach the command that enables me to turn off the defroster?

Why do I have to press a button that says "Audio" and then pass through two more screens to find a different radio station?

Heated steering wheels are wonderful. But why is it necessary to go into the "Settings" mode, then search for the steering wheel icon, then carefully touch the steering wheel icon as the car sails along at 60 mph just to make it stop roasting my hands?

And why, for the love of heaven, as we enter 2014, do vehicles keep requiring me to "agree" that using the car's radio, climate and navigation features is dangerous before permitting me to do what I want to do?

Speeding is also dangerous. Vehicles don't require you to acknowledge that before permitting you to accelerate. You could lose control of a vehicle while looking in a glove box -- should the vehicle ask you to sign a waiver every time you reach to open it?

I'm intentionally not singling out and identifying the models I'm referring to because the problem is universal.

Imports, domestics, sedans, sports cars, crossovers -- vehicle electronics features are being designed and configured by people who apparently think the way computer software designers think: namely, like computer software designers rather than like "end users" who just want to focus on the road.

Error messages still pop up on personal computer screens that make no sense, with unfriendly phrasing and weird syntax. Almost 30 years after the launch of Windows, software designers still don't quite recognize the difference between the general public and their savvy colleagues there at the next cubicle in the software lab.

Let's don't be that way in the car business.

Nobody wants that. Nobody wants foolishly complicated technology to replace simple functions.

If I have to push more than one button to turn off the defroster, if I have to go into vehicle settings to make the display screen stop showing me the map to my house instead of telling me the name of the song I'm hearing, if I have to press the steering wheel-embedded channel changer three times to make it skip to the next radio station, if I have to go through four screens to make the guidance voice stop telling me to turn right in 200 yards when I didn't even ask for guidance, somebody out there is missing an opportunity to build a better car.

The auto industry is now thrusting itself into a new era of autonomous driving technology. In a decade or less, you will be able to tell your car where you want to go, and it will simply take you there.

But here's a prediction: If the controls and user interfaces of those first autonomous cars aren't simple to the point of simplistic, it's going to take a long, long time to win consumers over.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.


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