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Carte Blanche: Enough with the touch screen

Published November 6, 2012

The automotive journalism fraternity/sorority/community/whatever can proudly take some credit for beating back the “talking car”, 30-odd years ago.

“Your door is ajar.”

“Your lights are on.”

“Your payment is overdue.”

A warning light and a soft beep are all that’s required, thank you very much.

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The universal condemnation of these things by the media helped send them into the dumpster of automotive technology history, and not a moment too soon.

It is time for us to rise up again as one, and do the same thing to touch screens.

As I have said in various road tests recently, this technology is bad enough on the iPhone, by far the worst-designed piece of crap I have ever had the misfortune to use.

Don’t get me started; I know they sell millions of them. Celine Dion sells a lot of records. Tim’s sells a lot of coffee. McDonald’s sells a lot of hamburgers.

Millions – even yours truly! – watch the Toronto Maple Leafs (when they’re not on strike or locked out). Popularity proves nothing.

Touch screens are hard enough to operate when you’re sitting at your desk. But when you’re trying to operate one on the move in a 2,000 kg missile at 120 km/h on a crowded highway?

It is folly. It is dangerous.They should be banned outright.

First, let’s begin with the sad fact that for a considerable portion of all driving, you can’t see a damned thing on these screens — when you’re heading west in the morning or east in the afternoon, hence, a ‘following sun’ — the fingerprints that inevitably accumulate essentially make the screen opaque.

Are we supposed to take lens cleaner to it every time we get in the blessed car?

Even if you can read it, one of the fundamental principles of the science of ergonomics (I am an industrial engineer by education, so I do bring some credentials to this party) is that a device be as simple to operate as possible, that the motions required to operate it be as natural as possible, and that said actions provide positive feedback that the operation has been successfully completed.

Touch screens fail on all counts.

First, unless you have preternatural spatial awareness, you cannot tell by feel whether you are touching the part of the screen you need to do whatever it is you’re trying to do.

You have to take your eyes off the road to see what area of the screen you want to touch.

In most cases, there is no feedback at all that anything has been done, so you have to keep your eyes off the road to determine whether you have caressed it sufficiently for it to do your bidding.
Sometimes, an indicator light goes on, but again, you have to look.

In other cases (the Ford Escape that’s in my driveway as I type; the Ford Taurus that it replaced last week) you get a little ‘beep’ if you’ve accomplished something.

But of course it’s exactly the same ‘beep’, whether you’ve changed channels on the satellite radio or fired up the AirCon – again, you have to look, and that defeats the entire purpose.

In the Cadillac ATS, the first car I’ve driven with the CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system (the larger XTS also has it…) there is some ‘haptic’ feedback – the screen jiggles a little when you change something, to let you know in a tactile way that you have in fact managed to do something.

But again, it’s the same jiggle for any function; there’s no differentiation.

Plus in the ATS, this feedback doesn’t seem to occur for all functions (I haven’t spent enough time in the car to figure out when it does and when it doesn’t).

And because most touch screens are so sensitive – similar ‘touch’ technology is used on the centre consoles in cars like the Chevy Volt – it’s far too easy to activate some function that you don’t want. Then you have to take your eyes off the road for an even longer time just to get back to where you started.

Simply unacceptable.

Ford ran into massive criticism when they launched their SYNC/MyTouch system a couple of years ago. The highly-influential Consumers’ Reports went so far as to label any Ford that was so equipped “Not Recommended.”

Rightly so – the first generation of that system was spectacularly awful. How it ever saw the light of day is beyond comprehension. The recent redesign of the screens and the “tree-logic” to move between them is vastly improved.

But the system is still virtually impossible to operate while in motion, as I am finding out in the Escape, and found out in the Taurus.

I wonder how much of the criticism of the original was based simply on the fact that it used a touch screen?

No amount of fine-tuning of the procedures can make up for the
deficiencies of this technology.

Defenders of this nonsense sometimes say you can avoid these problems by using the Voice Recognition function that’s built into most of these. Are they kidding?

When you ask for ‘Dundas Street’ and it responds, ‘Do you mean Corunna Street’, as a Chrysler 200 Convertible did a couple of months ago? Um, no, not even close.

Or when a year or so ago, I drove a Porsche that kept telling me to “Turn right on Bloor Strasse” or “Turn left on King Allee.”
(Yes, all car companies do have ‘em.)

Voice activation has been sniffing around for – hmm-mm, must be almost a decade. But it is still so difficult and user-unfriendly, I don’t know anybody who uses it regularly. (I know, I know – the one person who does is gonna e-mail me.)

I get it; all car companies are trying to find ways to build ever more functions into the limited space that a dashboard/centre console offers.

BMW probably got this ball rolling with the infamous iDrive system.
The reception to that was probably almost as bad as to Ford’s SYNC/MyTouch, although I don’t think Consumers’ Reports ever cut off BMW entirely.

Subsequent generations of iDrive have been somewhat easier to operate, as have Mercedes-Benz’s ‘COMAND’ systems.

In my experience, Nissan/Infiniti and Audi have probably done the best job with this sort of ‘joystick’ type of controller.

Lexus combined the ‘joystick’ concept with the ‘haptic feedback’ concept, which again suggested some progress. And at least these systems require you to push a real button, with real travel, and real tactile feedback.

So, who came up with these stupid things in the first place? You know that car companies use focus groups to test out new product ideas before they hit the showrooms. That’s how Ford decided to introduce the Edsel – wait; maybe not the best example.

Or maybe it is…

What sort of people are they recruiting for the focus groups that led to the introduction of these touch screens?

Very possibly young people who do in fact have experience with this technology in their phones, which they consider “cool.” (Like showing off to that cute girl in Grade Four by walking along a fence, why is being ‘stupid’ always considered ‘cool’?)

But these young people do not have much experience with driving.
Nor do they buy many cars. Geez; most of them are still living in their parents’ basements.

Seriously; what was ever wrong with what is known in the trade as ‘oven-style’ knobs? Round knobs, with a ridge on them, so you can tell at the merest touch what position the knob is at, and to what position you have moved it?

The knobs up here work the radio, the ones down there work the HVAC.
Simple. Natural. Positive feedback.

The heater controls on my old BMW were perfect. Two such knobs, one for fan speed and one for temperature – cranking either one clockwise turned the function ‘up’ – and three slide levers, the top one to direct air to the windshield, the middle to the dash vents, the bottom to the floor.

If you did glance over at them, you could see at a glance how you’d set things up, just like an audio system graphic equalizer.
Better still, you could tell just by feel.

Now, is this just a Grumpy Old Man wishing things would never change? Well yes, clearly – this does make me grumpy. I am getting old (beats the only available alternative). Last time I looked, I was a man.

But this is not merely opinion here; this is fact. There is science involved here. Why are interior designers trying to refute science?

Maybe this is all a devious plot by Google to make driving so complicated and dangerous that everyone will rush out to buy their “Driverless Car.”

Yeah, that’s it! Nothing like a good conspiracy theory to get the discussion going.

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