Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering Reporter

The drive to make car functions simple is cutting out simplicity

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DETROIT -- Several industry executives spoke today about the challenges of integrating more and more electronics, apps, features and connectivity into automobiles and making them very easy for us to operate.

In a few years, you may be able to change the radio station simply by moving your finger in front of the stereo or the information screen.

You also might be able to hand off control to the car with a simple voice command that engages autonomous driving.

Cameras in the car will be able to determine the driver’s physical condition and make adjustments to the brakes and steering to increase safety.

While this was being discussed at the WardsAuto Interiors Conference in suburban Detroit, I couldn’t help but think that something has been lost in the progression from the old yester-tech way of operating a car’s features to the new computerized way, where everything is not just controlled electronically, but is infinitely customizable.

What has been lost is simplicity. My friend Craig Daitch has a 1966 Ford Mustang that I sometimes help him maintain. I’ve seen Craig driving and changing the temperature without looking away from the road. All it takes is a quick push or pull of a lever in the center of the dash.

In my own old cars, lowering a window, adjusting a seat or changing the brightness of the instrument lights is a quick, intuitive no-brainer, accomplished with the simple press of button, the turn of a small knob or the movement of an easily reached lever. My eyes stay on the road.

The last time I sat in a BMW, I felt like a dumbstruck fool because I couldn’t quickly figure out what button lowered the driver’s window.

While classic cars can’t compete with new cars on safety, fuel economy, emissions and a thousand other things, they still win on ease of use. There is something appealing about being able to control a car without being an experienced computer programmer.

Today, I asked Ed Welburn, General Motors vice president of global design, if there was any consideration being given at GM to making cars simple again with manually operated functions instead of electronics controlling nearly everything.

There is not, he said.

Welburn, who has a classic 1960s Camaro muscle car, also appreciates simplicity. But he argues that electronics done right are better than old-school mechanical systems.

“Electronics can be our friend,” he quipped.

Maybe so, but Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of automotive technologies at J.D. Power and Associates, presented data today that show automakers are continuing to get dinged badly on quality surveys because of electronics. Such things as voice-recognition systems don’t work properly, and navigation systems are hard for consumers to figure out.

In my perfect world, electronics would not be allowed to control a function in a car until it works just as simply as it did in a 1966 Mustang.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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