Look at all my lovely buttons – so much choice, so little time!
From The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut : “The only controls available to those on board were two push-buttons on the centre post of the cabin – one labelled ‘ON’ and one labelled ‘OFF’. The ON button simply started a flight from Mars. The OFF button connected to nothing. It was installed at the insistence of the Martian mental health experts, who said that human beings were always happier with machinery they thought they could turn off.”
In a companion piece, I’ll shortly sing the delights of a car that entertains, but there’s another side to this. Cars have become complex, with lots of switches and touch-screen options. If you drive a modern car, do you use every option that is available to you? Do you even know every option?
We live in a world of such options. Few people reading this will be viewing it on their device’s default settings. The ability to select from a multitude of choices many times a day is how we measure our supposed individuality. Cars are no different – as an extreme example, go on Maserati’s website and start optioning a Granturismo. See how far you get with contrasting stitching and brake caliper colours before you scream for help. Big earners are supposed to be time-poor these days, so how do they find the hours needed to make these decisions?
Of course, if you want to persuade someone that a €45,000 Audi is substantially better than a €30,000 Skoda, you need to give them something more than performance figures. Especially when they’re stationary in a 10 km tailback on the A8, the Skoda is in the lane next to them and the driver is looking pretty smug. So extra toys are good for Marketing, giving the motionless driver something to fiddle with. And once they’re on the move again, the ability to programme the ride, the engine response and the speedo readout really makes them feel they are in full control.
As electronics have got more sophisticated, it is far easier to process and present the information required in a single place, as and when it is required. But oddly, whilst car designers have a wealth of accident protection legislation that prescribes the shapes of their creations, there is far less legislation to prevent them incorporating the distractions that can cause the accident in the first place.
Some new cars are hinting at a new minimalism. The Citroen Cactus and BMW i3 have both mimicked a simple tablet display screen, proud of the dashboard. In the case of the Cactus, I find the result more superficial than mimimal – I feel that the designers were going in the right direction but cost engineering interfered. The BMW works better but, if you find this simplification too austere, it doesn’t have to be. KIA’s Stinger Concept tries to rationalise the display into a stylish environment, and Audi’s new TT packs both satnav and essential information into one screen in front of the driver, where it should be. Really, this is as complex as most people need it. Choice is over-rated.