/ 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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Ian says:
19 June 2014

Technology on cars is getting ridiculous. I want a means of transport not a complex toy which happens to also be able to get me from A to B . I like to be in control so I even dislike anti lock braking especially when linked to a button operated electric handbrake. How am I supposed to stop in the case of complete electrical failure if I have no direct mechanical connection to the brakes? Also without a mechanical handbrake I have no means of slowing down in snow when the anti-lock system completely disables the brakes.
There has to be a market for a quality car which is back to basics. The Dacia range is a good attempt, but it is cheap & cheerful car , I think that there is a big market out there for a quality car with the degree of technology of a 1980s car only updated as far as is necessary to meet legislation.

I share your concerns, Ian. Perhaps the best known example of failure in car technology is in warning light systems for reporting faults. These can be very costly to repair. In some cases there is no fault. Some drivers will carry on driving in the hope that there is no problem and will have no way of knowing if there is a real fault. If warning light systems can go wrong then perhaps automatic handbrakes etc could do the same.

When I last changed my car a couple of years ago, getting one with a spare wheel was top priority, but having a conventional handbrake was high on the list. If they prove to be reliable and and generally accepted I may reconsider. The one thing that does annoy me about my car is the fact that there are automatic headlights but no indication of when they are on. That is not always obvious in poor daytime driving conditions.

I was very suspicious of anti-lock brakes when they first appeared, but I think we would know by now if failures were causing accidents. It took some time but I am convinced that they are a benefit to the average motorist, while conceding that a highly skilled driver might manage well without them. I don’t believe that it is fair to say that abs completely disables the brakes.

With power steering and servo-assisted brakes, a failure will still allow us to steer and stop the vehicle. For some reason that I have never understood, the steering and brakes become very heavy when not assisted, but at least they still work. With the electric handbrake, there is no manual backup, which looks like poor design to me.

When ABS breaking came out years ago I was a bit suspicious about them at first. Where I live in Montana, out winters can be long and snowy. After doing a lot of reading about them early on, I saw test repoers showing that they did actually stop a vehicle in a shorter distance, I decided to give them a work out in an empty parking lot. The first thing that one has to get over is the noise. They are noisy, but they are doing their thing. Also, with ABS, you can still steer a vehicle whereas if the brakes are locked up in a skid, you have no control at all. I found it helpful in quite a few instances over the years.

As far as many, or most of the gadgets that are now being put into new cars, most of them I have no use for. My car is transportation. I don’t live in it. I don’t need to have the car read my e-mail. I have no use for bluetooth as one of the first things I do before driving is turn OFF my cell phone. Touch screen “Infotainment” systems are for me another useless feature. I can’t remember how many years ago I learned how to operate a radio. Some vehicles also have the climate controls in the touchscreen. I find that this is just another distraction that would take a drivers eyes off of the road.

Sorry, no need for this garbage. I need to pay attention to the road and be ready to avoid some other driver playing with the gadgets in their car or yapping on the cell phone.

Christina grimes says:
8 November 2016

It’s terrible, especially when it keeps telling you to STOP because brakes are faulty and they are not. Gives the driver a heart attack. All too complicated, I want to drive without interference from technology.

I have head up display that shows speed, cut-down satnav and other useful bits as they occur directly in front of me in the lower part windscreen. Important information I can see without taking my eyes off the road. I thought it a gimmick but would not now be without it.

I am hoping that the day will come when all large direction signs on the approaches to gyratories and major junctions will be replaced with a device that transmits images to the heads-up display directly in the driver’s field of vision and carries on showing the junction or roundabout layout as a moving image as the vehicle negotiates it. A further development would be to select the exit on entry and the system steers the vehicle in the right lanes at the best speeds and the correct position for leaving the junction. Satnav does it to a restricted extent in adapted and stylised plan form, and it is advisory only, but it would be good to have a driver’s-eye image in real time. The vehicle would have to have a remotely controlled camera on board of course. I wouldn’t want this on Motorways because their signs are monumental and aesthetically dramatic [although not so attractive as they were before they made the forward motorway path perpendicular rather than slightly offset to the left as on the early signs].

My satnav goes some way to this by, on major dual carriageways and motorways, displaying in the heads up a moving coloured image of the road-junction sign and the road lanes with an arrow on the appropriate one to use. It makes life a lot easier on unfamiliar roads, particularly when they are busy, at night or in bad weather.

My cheap sat-nav does this, the maps can be updated without charge, and I can get a new one if it becomes outdated. I keep cars for years and before paying for expensive technology I would want to be sure that it could be updated if required.

Approaching complex junctions with high lorries in the inside lane is the problem I was thinking about. Satnavs have certainly advanced and are probably good enough now with driverless cars on the horizon. We don’t have a satnav because we like the mental challenge but also rarely go anywhere unfamiliar [the roads don’t change very much in our part of the world – until recently Norwich was the last driving test centre without any dual carriageways accessible within the time allowed for a test, and after they built the southern bypass they had to move the DTC to be closer to it].

Too technologically advanced. I would agree with that. And building in obsolescence is always a good move for manufacturers.

And hot off the press
“Bild am Sonntag – a German publication – has found a document wherein Audi chief of powertrains Axel Eiser discusses the defeat feature and how it will be “100% active on the dyno, but only 0.01% in the hands of the customer,” making it hard for the company to claim it was the work of a small group of engineers.”