/ Motoring

Modern cars are too technologically advanced for their own good

Endless options, multiple menus, duplicate dashboard screens… modern cars are brimming with extra features to make you feel more in control. But I personally find all these in-car gadgets have the opposite effect.

It’s 5am, I’m adjusting to being up at such an early hour and am about to endure a two-hour drive into work. It’s a freezing winter morning and my mitts are so cold it feels like they’re going to become affixed to the steering wheel. All I want to do is turn the car heater to full whack, but, to my frustration, I can’t…

This is the scenario I endured a few weeks ago when driving a Nissan Juke to the Which? office. I imagine some of you are already assuming that this was the result of either a fault with the card or my incompetence – well, you’re wrong.

The real cause of these highly irritating events was inadequate and inconceivably poor in-car tech design. I’ll explain.

I’m losing control!

The Juke, a compact crossover between a supermini and an SUV, has two central dashboard screens: one displaying the optional sat nav and entertainment features, the other showcasing some (rather useless) driving data. The latter passes judgement on how efficiently you’re driving in eco mode and how much ‘boost’ is being used when in sport mode.

What wasn’t clear was any sort of control for the fan’s power output and direction, despite a dial which appeared to adapt the temperature.

I tried poking through all the on-screen options, rotated the fan-power dial like it was an interior-mounted spin top, and mashed as many buttons as I could set my eyes on; all while trying to concentrate on the road.

After an hour and 50 minutes of angry button punching, I finally discovered that the ‘climate’ button switched the bottom monitor from displaying driving data to showing the fan options. This also changed the names of the buttons surrounding the screen, finally letting me control the fan. Far from intuitive if you ask me.

What happened to ease of use?

Just to support my own perceptions of this crime against usability, I asked fellow members of the Which? Car team to try and make adjustments to the temperature using the same format I faced when getting in the car that morning. Inevitable failure followed.

And it’s not the first time either. It seems every new car I test features updated in-car tech that houses sub-folder after sub-folder of vital controls and information. All of which requires you to concentrate on navigating through settings, rather than focussing 100% on navigating your car! Even turning off the sat nav lady in the latest version of BMW’s iDrive system takes some working out.

To me, it almost feels like the basic controls you use every day are needlessly being hidden away in the depths of complicated new-car ‘infortainment’ systems. The 2001 car I own has an extremely basic dash layout, with all the buttons clearly marked, logically placed and within easy reach to allow quick and effortless adjustments on the move.

It feels to me ease of use in cars is going backwards due to the incorporation of, and advances in, technology. Is all this frustration really a price worth paying for the ‘extra features’ that come with modern in-car gadgets?

Is in-car technology getting too advanced at the expense of usability?

I like extra features, but car makers need to design better interfaces (52%, 71 Votes)

Yes - I get frustrated with all the multiple menus and options (39%, 54 Votes)

No - I feel more in control with all the extra features (9%, 12 Votes)

Total Voters: 139

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“It feels to me ease-of-use in cars is going backwards due to the incorporation of, and advances in, technology. Is all this frustration really a price worth paying for the ‘extra features’ that come with modern in-car gadgets?”
Its not the advances in technology that is causing the problems but the poor design of the interface.
Its happened in many other product groups ie TVs, kitchen appliances etc but its only in the last year or so that its reached normal cars.
Lets hope the ease of use of these controls gets well tested in car reviews.
At least the depth of control does allow you to alter some of the features which may irritate you with a car like the operation of the central locking/unlocking.

Monsteer says:
9 January 2012

I completely agree. I used to be a webdesigner and interface design was such a key factor in determining whether a site was user-friendly. ‘Wavechange’ mentioned the Apple philosophy and I think Apple are a great example of a company empathetically creating effective, intuitive interfaces and they completely turned around the company. It really isn’t the amount of features; rather the way they are presented, structured and accessed.

Let’s hope car companies catch on to this emerging customer demand.


Struggling to use controls diverts attention from driving so simple, easy to use controls could help avoid accidents or near misses.


Even if you can understand the controls, what happens when something breaks? Simplicity is both practical and elegant. Leave the fancy stuff for those with more money than sense and feel a little smug when it all goes wrong. 🙂


Its not a matter of fancy stuff being more expensive, the underlying technology is the same whether there are no options or layers of menu options. Its just a matter of a few extra lines of computer code which costs next to nothing.
Many of these options have been around for a while – just hidden away and accessible only by the dealers or manufacturers.


Yes, but extra complexity adds extra buttons and switches unless the designer has adopted the Apple philosophy. It is not always the high tech bits that cause the problem.


My Jaguar touch screen was supposed to make everything simple to operate and it was reasonably logical. However, when it went wrong, it took half the controls with it. No heating – (full on to the head with no option to turn it off), no rear screen demist, no front screen defrost, no entertainment no air con no sat nav and all buttons associated with the screen disabled. Faced with a bill of £2,000 plus to sort out the control unit in the boot, the car and I swiftly parted company. I don’t know whether other touch screens are set up in this way, but the Jaguar system links a lot of functions to this one DVD unit, making it complicated and expensive.

My V70 has a sensible layout and everything needed to drive the car is to hand. There are sub menues which can be controlled from the steering wheel, but these don’t need adjusting on the move and are simple to get at when stationary. I chose extras which I thought would be useful and I don’t regret any of these as they add function and pleasure to the journey. I enjoy my car and don’t find the technology intrusive, complicated or frustrating. One of its greatest strengths is that it simply gets on with the task of getting us where we want to go and never feels anything other than capable and well sorted. So, no, I don’t necesarily find modern cars confusing and complicated provided they are reliable and well engineered. I haven’t played with an i drive or the Merc/ Audi equivalent. These might alter my view.


Try a Morris Minor, with the optional heater.


I agree all the basics and essentials should be controlled by simple switches and knobs.
All the options can be left to the touch screen or equivalent menu system. A bit like some of the well designed Audio Visual equipment which have only the basic volume and channel switches on “display” and the optional switches hidden behind a panel.


Morris Minor? My first car. I paid a fiver for it, the farmer turfed out the chickens and off I drove.

Mr Eric Stewart says:
30 December 2011

After months of dealing with Renault Dealers on the faults on my 2007 Grand Scenic like my all dashboard information totally disappearing, Heater/Air Con Fan switch burning out, and electric windows failing, I am really sick of the so called technological advances that are being quoted to us as ‘making our driving experience better’……They don’t, they are useless, time consuming, and very expensive because they can only be repaired by the ‘Renault Dealers’ themselves on their own DIAGNOSTIC machines !


…and there I was thinking my car was cool because it tells me how many miles of petrol I have left.


My 2001 Toyota Avensis is easy – most of the controls you can preset (radio stations etc), simple but effective heating and climate controls and cd player.
The lighting and wiper controls are all on the steering column as are the lighting controls.
The only other controls give you average mpg to date, and approx how many miles petrol are left.
My first car was an Austin A40 countryman – an early version of a hatchback. It was very simple and never broke down. Rusted through by the age of 6 years though. My present Avensis is 10 years old and I have yet to see ANY rust – now that is progress !