Glimpse of our future
The other day a large vehicle collided with my smaller vehicle, causing much damage to both. (FYI: Other party admitted blame.)
As a result, I have been loaned a top of the line much more recent model of my own vehicle, and it has provided a sudden unplanned opportunity to experience where automotive technology and design is going. The change in technology (a 15 year jump) is a little like my time warp jump from being an early 80s gamer to playing Battlefield 4 on our PS4. I had not gamed in between, except for a short stint on the groundbreaking PS1, so the huge improvement in technology was amazing to behold.
The vehicle I have on loan is a large 4×4 / SUV with a diesel engine, manual gearbox and loaded with technology. The most modern vehicle I have ever owned (by choice), is a 2002 plate! From my experience, the more electronics a vehicle has, the more to go wrong, and like my phone, computers and such, I have no time for anything that is unreliable because it disrupts workflow or family life.
Rather than ramble on, I’ll provide a use case of my experience with this SUV:
- To unlock vehicle, press button on ‘key’ fob. I say ‘key’ because there is no mechanical metal key at all, as in, the thing you would insert into the door and twist to unlock or lock.
- Climb in. The seats are bucket like, so you feel like you’re in a sports car. No room for movement.
- The visibility in all direction is terrible, in particular the rear, unlike my own vehicle that has a proper boxy design and large windows, so you can see out properly and stash radio controlled flying machines in the rear. This immediately makes one feel very vulnerable and concerned for anyone nearby outside. (I’m going somewhere with this.)
- To start the engine, you press the clutch with the other foot on the break and press a button on the dashboard. Nothing new there, many cars have had keyless entry and ignition for a while, but it feels odd. Apparently, the key fob uses a wireless connection to inform the vehicle that the driver is inside, so even if you leave the doors unlocked, no one else can start the car. A bit like the ‘trusted devices’ feature on some Android phones – a brilliant idea!
- Instinctively, I move my left arm to release the hand break. Eh? There is no hand break! My arm fumbles around like it does when suffering an electric shock. It doesn’t know where to go, for a lifetime of driving it has rested between passenger and driver seat lightly on the hand break if not on the steering wheel. The hand break, or ‘parking break’ as they say in the US of A and now in the U of K is automatic! There is a manual override in the form of an electronic switch in the centre console that works like that for an electric window, but no large human friendly tactile handle or such.
- I need to reverse, so instinctively look beyond (never trust your mirrors!), but the visibility is as mentioned, awful. Basically, the whole area behind and to the sides of the vehicle is a massive blind spot, unless an object is over 5 or 6 feet tall. I resort to the video screen in the console where the parking cameras have automatically activated. This innovation, invented by Nissan (who make my vehicle) is genius, or at least, I thought so when first hearing about it, but in reality, it goes against instinct, and is unsafe. (Note the number of recent examples of drivers running over kids playing in driveways, by modern gadget laden SUVs. No surprise.) It is not natural to need to look forward to ‘look’ back, if you know what I mean. The video feed from the cameras should either be displayed on the main rear view mirror OR on a wide roof mounted drop down screen in the passenger area behind. I cannot trust and do not feel comfortable looking forward and down on a small (8″?) display in order to check for any short children or poles.
- There is another major design flaw, the cup holders. On my older vehicle, they are up high on the dashboard out of the way. In this futuristic machine, they are right behind the gear stick, so if there is a tall latte or water bottle in the holder, your arm hits it when trying to change gear! Oh dear.
- Driving the vehicle is fine, (this is not a car review!), and the fact it can read road signs and display the speed limit in real time on the video display (ideal if you missed any sign) is helpful. I remember reading how some auto makers were putting cameras in their vehicles to read road signs, rather than rely solely on GPS / SatNav data that may be out of date. A cool ‘local data’ idea that works because technology that depends on constant connectivity cannot always be relied upon.
- The lights are clever, although again, move the onus away from the driver to the machine. They dim automatically when passing other vehicles or through a built up area, perhaps to avoid dazzling people walking along the roads? (Like most of you no doubt, I dim my lights anyway in such conditions, so I guess this is just one more Googlization* of my mind and soul!)
- Another interesting bit of tech that I was not aware had made it down from BMWs (who I think invented the idea) is that when you stop (say at the lights), the engine cuts out, restarting when you press the throttle again. First time, I thought the engine had stalled so pressed the start button.
- On arrival at destination, more non instinctive processes occur. Again, one reaches for the non existent parking break, hand flailing around hitting the badly positioned cup holder. Ha! I then went to twist the key to OFF. No key! Oh yes, how I remember, press down clutch, other foot on break, and press the START/STOP button.
So, mixed opinions on what is really the very beginning of autonomous driving technology, although in the above use case, I did not use cruise control (don’t like it, makes one complacent) or any other technology that automated the driving process. In fact, my rental vehicle has a manual gearbox, whilst my own is an automatic, something I prefer for ease of driving in traffic or about town. However, what this has done is introduce me to the gradual disconnect of humans from the real world.
The poor visibility (that I see as a genuine safety issue) and reliance entirely on a small poorly positioned video display is a little like virtual reality, but without the full immersive experience. I felt a total loss of control and trust in technology whose flaws in execution could lead to a tragic accident. (As it happens, I always get out of my car when unsure of my surroundings.) Then there is the issue of the badly positioned cup holders. Both of these examples show why much use case testing should occur before any vehicle is released.
The unfortunate thing is that automotive design, like most other things, is trend based. One company will launch a product with a brave new design theme – and the rest follow. In this case, the theme is a vehicle that was originally designed to perform utilitarian tasks, such as carrying things or animals, to simply being a lifestyle product, where functional design takes second place over looking funky. All the recent SUVs follow this trend, except the Landrover Discovery, that retains it’s boxy look which is (to me) not only more attractive, but practical, you can get large square items, dogs, boxes and more into the back, something you cannot do with curvy backed vehicles like the Nissan X-Trail, Honda CRV and others.
Food for thought anyway, as you prepare for Uberville where one day, you won’t even have a steering wheel!
Fight back club: Keep your spacious vehicle with excellent visibility and driver ergonomics until automotive manufacturers realise that intelligent design counts.
*Googlization, Googleisation, Googleization, Googalization? Take your pick!