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Why are fuel filler doors not always on driver's side?

Jim Kenzie riffs on some more stupid human auto design tricks.

Car companies run all sorts of market research and focus groups to find out what you want in your cars.

This of course is the process that brought us the Edsel. Even you young folk know what that means.

But if the response to my ‘Stupid Human Design Tricks’ column last week is any indication, the car makers haven’t learned much in the intervening half-century.

I don’t have room here to list everyone’s pet peeves, nor would I have enough time to reply to each of you individually, which I always try to do — I apologize for that.

But here are some highlights.

Instrument panel lights on when the Daytime Running Lights are on, fooling drivers into thinking their real lights are on, should be banned.

Couldn’t agree more. I don’t know how this was even allowed by Transport Canada when it instituted DRL in the early 1990s. No need for more study on this one — first thing Monday morning, folks, you can sign this regulation into force, effective immediately.

Meanwhile everybody, just switch your proper headlights on all the time.

Another common beef is that even reduced-intensity high beams for DRL are often still too bright in daytime, especially on taller pick-ups and SUVs.

Speaking of batteries, why are they sometimes under the rear seat (2000 Buick Le Sabre or the old VW Beetle) or in the trunk (Chevrolet Cobalt or my old BMW 318)?

Packaging issues (there’s only so much room under today’s sloping hoods) and weight distribution (a particular concern for BMW) may be responsible here.

Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) controls are often too low on the dash, too poorly marked, or are a series of identical-to-the-touch pushbuttons which require major distraction to operate.

My old 1991 BMW 318 had three side-to-side levers, one each for air flow to the defroster, dash vents and floor, and two round ‘oven-style’ knobs for fan speed and temperature.

My car didn’t have air conditioning, but those that did had a simple push button for on/off. No need for anyone to ever redesign this. But even BMW did. Silly people.

Defroster vents in a 2000 Chevrolet Impala aimed too high to clear the bottom 15 cm or so of the windshield? Snow builds up on the outside to the extent that the wipers cannot remove it, and you have to stop and clear it off, which in winter is always dangerous.

One reader said his Toyota automatically blows ultra-hot air when in Defrost mode — the Porsche 911 I’m driving now seems to do the same thing. Why can’t we decide how hot the air should be?

Many design and engineering decisions are attempts to handle conflicting objectives. Thick roof pillars and high body sides improve crash resistance; big side-view mirrors help let you know what’s sneaking up behind you; flat rear windows and high trunk lids improve aerodynamics for better fuel economy and increased cargo capacity; rear headrests reduce whiplash for those occupants.

But all of the above can seriously affect visibility for the driver, especially shorter drivers. In the case of rear headrests, there is seldom anyone in the back seat; there is always a driver who needs to see to the rear. They should at least be adjustable, if not collapsible.

This is why it is crucial for you to take a full test drive before signing the paper — make sure you can see out of it before you buy into it.

Why don’t all cars have the fuel filler door on the same side? The driver’s side would seem to make the most sense.

This might explain why most Japanese cars have it on ‘our’ passenger’s side — it’s ‘their’ driver’s side.

Doesn’t explain why most German cars have it on ‘our’ (and ‘their’) passenger’s side. Since I’ve largely owned German cars, this seems perfectly natural to me.

One female driver asks why cars don’t have built-in trash receptacles?

She also shares with, I’m sure, all female and metrosexual drivers a desire for a place to put a handbag other than on a slushy floor.

Some vans and SUVs do offer this, and Volvo did show a compact concept car with this, but not so much in production cars yet.

Speaking of cup holders, what’s up with those which when used block access to the radio, HVAC or other controls? Or which are so shallow that even a slight bump dumps the contents IN to said radio or HVAC controls?

Minivans and SUVs with spare tires located under the floor of the vehicle mean the spare will always be horribly dirty or, in the case of a Windstar owner, the securing bolt will be totally rusted and have to be broken to get the spare off, adding another couple of hundred bucks to the tire repair bill.

He also had an example of a small part failing — in his case, the electric motor for the sliding rear-side door — but needing a thousand bucks to tear the van apart to install it.

Similar story for another Ford, a Focus, whose ignition key stuck in the slot. Turns out a small sensor in the transmission interlock system failed, but the entire gubbins had to be replaced, to the tune of several hundred dollars.

real

The electronic parking brake on the Volkswagen Passat (these are becoming near-universal) makes it virtually impossible to use it to help get a start on a steep hill.

Again, I couldn’t agree more. They also make handbrake turns impossible. Killjoys.

Give us a proper pull-up hand brake between the seats as God in Her wisdom intended.

Foot-operated parking brakes aren’t much better, as one reader noted in his old manual-transmission Firebird. Too many pedals, not enough feet.

Another reader remembers his 1978 Honda Civic fondly for, among other reasons, having horn buttons at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions where they were easily accessible (assuming your hands were in the proper quarter-to-three position) no matter what you were doing at the wheel, on the very reasonable assumption that the need for the horn and rapid steering correction could well coincide.

In most of today’s cars, you have to pound the centre of the steering wheel boss to work the horn, which with an air bag in there, sometimes takes a lot of pounding.

Also, if the honking and steering does not avoid the collision, your fist is now right on top of an exploding air bag. Shoulder surgery, anyone?

Express-down windows are a great idea, but why aren’t they also always express-up? With anti-pinch technology, it’s a no-brainer.

Passenger-seat heater switches on the outboard side of the seat (Ford Escape) so the driver can’t pre-warm the seat or switch it off if the passenger leaves and forgets to do so?

Poorly-located seat back adjustment levers (2000 Saturn LS) on the seat cushion, where simply sitting on the seat can lay your seat back down? Good fun at 100 km/h.

Windshield washers that swipe the wipers before the fluid hits the glass, so the dirt gets smeared before it can get be washed off?

Portions of the carpeting in a Chevrolet Impala that are supported by nothing but air, so a high-heeled shoe can — and has — punched holes right through?

Poorly-aimed interior lights that don’t show all parts of the car, or which don’t stay on long enough to give you time to gather up your stuff on a dark night? Why not leave them on until you open and re-close the door?

Cheap plastic bits that shatter in cold weather? Hello — CANADA calling.

A bright red “D” on a 2003 Mazda Protege that indicates the car is in Drive, while the low-fuel light is a weak and wan amber? Red is the universal colour of danger. Is being in Drive more dangerous than running out of fuel?

Rear hatches that drip water on your head — how hard can it be to design channels to direct the water away? One reader notes that his Acura RDX SUV drips and his Mini doesn’t, so some manufacturers get it right.

A 2010 Mazda3 owner complains that he can’t open the trunk except when the ignition is off — very unhandy when he wants to open it for his wife — and that the radio is too accessible, so that he finds himself accidentally hitting the buttons all the time.

Like me in the Chevy Cruze, where my right knee automatically kept adjusting the temperature knob.

Finally, a veteran Wheels fan shares a thought I have long held: does anybody actually DRIVE these vehicles before they are offered for sale?

I did find a possible answer to my opening query in that column, about why my kitchen faucet resets itself to ‘stream’ from ‘spray’, instead of remaining in whatever mode you the user last selected.

A reader mentioned that his kitchen faucet works the other way — i.e., correctly.

But sometimes when he’s done the dishes using the spray he forgets to flick it back. The next time his wife turns it on to wash her hands or something, it sprays out forcefully, “necessitating mopping up the counter, floor, and her blouse.

“Followed,” he continues, “by a spell of verbal abuse directed at me.”

I have a wrench, sir. Wanna swap?

jim@jimkenzie.com

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