Needless Complexity

This is the article where I jump the shark and become a grumpy old man, shouting for the Millennials to get off my lawn.  Steel yourselves accordingly.

Cars have gotten hilariously over-complex.  It used to be that adding electronics to a car made it better, but we’ve gone far overboard.  Now, the miles of circuitry and wiring are actively making cars worse.

My 1992 Porsche 968 has an owner’s manual that consists of 123 pages.  My 2003 Carrera 4S has a manual with 263 pages (Ah! I wish it were 262—I would henceforth call it the “Schwalbe”).  My 2013 Cayenne Diesel?  349 pages.  The correlation between advancing year and advancing page count is not coincidental.  As the years roll by, cars become ever more computerized, for better and worse—but more for worse of late.

When we add capability to a vehicle (usually a good thing), we also add complexity (usually a bad thing).  For example, it used to be that we had one audio-visual option in a vehicle—an AM/FM radio.  Now we have AUX, USB, Bluetooth, vehicle-borne solid-state hard drives, DVD players, and on and on.  These devices certainly add capability, but they’ve also added complexity, forcing manufacturers to design “infotainment” systems for user management of all these media streams.  Unfortunately, said systems have generally frustrated consumers and resulted in a great deal of negative feedback.   The January 2016 Consumer Reports remarks about the Mazda CX-3, “give yourself some time for mastering the CX-3’s controls…even the most basic functions require lots of taps, twists, and icon deciphering.”  And about the gorgeous new (twincharged!) Volvo XC90, CR says “the large touch-screen console…looks dazzling until you have to operate it.  Almost all audio, climate, navigation, phone, and vehicle settings are integrated via swipe-and-tap commands that are frustratingly unintuitive.  If you buy an XC90, insist on a tutorial.”  These CR folks sound like my kind of people!  Seriously, though,  I could present more examples, but enough inkwells have already run dry in the act of denigrating, say, Cadillac’s CUE or Ford’s MyFord Touch.

In a slightly different vein, a coworker of mine recently related a story about his new third-gen Honda Pilot.  The car features an automatic engine stop/start feature.  I generally favor this particular technological advancement—the sight of cars sitting still with engines idling drives me crazy after two-plus years of Volt ownership—but it comes with its own brand of confusing complexity.  See, when he took his stop/start car to a conveyor-style car wash and put it in neutral, its engine shut off.  This was all fine and dandy until he reached the end of the car wash line.  He couldn’t start it back up in Neutral, so to drive off the line, he had to put it in Park, which means the conveyor system in the car wash battled against his transmission lock until he could get the thing fired up and into Drive.

The Honda engineers had foreseen this, of course, and had devised a “car wash mode” for the Pilot.  To engage it, you simply 1) press and hold the brake pedal, 2) press and release the (N) button (the car has push-button transmission mode selection), and then 3) press and hold (N) again for two seconds.  Now the engine will continue to run in Neutral for 15 minutes.  If the 15-minute timer runs out, the car auto-selects “Park” mode and shuts off.

Got all that?

Cars could still be fast, comfortable, and fuel-efficient without all this unnecessary additional complexity.  Hop on YouTube and watch Chris Harris drive a Ferrari F40, then watch him drive the three new hybrid supercars (P1, 918, LaFerrari).  In which video is he having more fun?  Spoiler alert: it’s the F40.  Doesn’t seem like the lack of Bluetooth in that winged red Ferrari bothers him.  I’ve no cup holders, no cruise control, and naught but a radio in the 968, but the day I took ownership, I drove it cross-country and it was fantastic.

To quote 007: “It’s the newest thing from Q Branch–it’s called a radio!”

It’s been said that the modern automobile is the most complex, highly engineered machine ever handed over to an almost completely untrained operator.  That’s undoubtedly true.  It’s also true that “driver distraction” is a leading cause of vehicle collisions.  Blame the smartphone, but also blame the clunky interface between vehicle and smartphone.  Blame the cup holders.  Blame the massive storage bins.  Blame satellite radio.  All of these are ample wells from whence distraction springs.  Thoreau said “simplify,” and Frank Lloyd Wright deplored excess storage space.  Auto manufacturers should take note.  Our vehicles can be engineered to do incredible and complex things, but none of those incredible and complex things should come between the driver and the act of driving.

My children will drive a manual-transmission 2012-2013 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design.  Why?  Legendary Swedish construction.  Hatchback practicality.  Three pedals and a lever to keep feet and hands occupied.  And no video screens, forcing eyes to the road.  I’ll just shove gum or something into the AUX and USB ports.

Yeah, STAY off my lawn.

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