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7 February, 2005


The New York Times has an article about the consequences of excessive complexity in cars.
Many modern cars are very similar, and stable, mechanically, as that aspect of design and engineering is fairly mature.  The major differences, particularly between luxury cars, is in the software monitoring the mechanical systems and providing extra 'convenience' to the driver and passengers.  As these electronics and software are often 'cutting edge' and may be inadequately understood by drivers and indeed mechanics, an increasing number of problems are either software-related or caused by faulty sensors on otherwise functioning mechanical systems.

Read the article for more on these themes, but my point about product design in general is that I don't want the unnecessary complexity and 'assistance' of automation.
The first example cited in the article is of a car which erroneously measured the temperature as low in the back of the cabin (independently of the front) so blasted the rear passengers with hot air. Personally, I wouldn't want auto-detection of temperature - if I was cold, I'd prefer to switch the heater on myself. It's my decision, not the car's. Similarly, if I want to open the window, I'd prefer to wind it down - with a handle, yes? I'm not opposed to electronics on principle, I just don't regard them as necessary in the typical car window. The manual mechanism is elegantly simple, and hence rather easier to repair than the electric alternative. It also works when the engine is turned off.
I'm unashamed (nor proud - I just don't care either way) to say I haven't experienced the more advanced atmosphere/audio/etc. control features of expensive cars, but the very phrase 'surprise and delight features', used in the article and plainly a buzzword, sets my teeth on edge.

A car is a metal box with an engine, wheels and seats. So long as it gets me from A to B, I'm happy. Anything beyond the basics is secondary.
No, that's oversimplifying my view. I fully acknowledge that technical refinements and electronics are vital in the operation and efficiency of modern cars, but I'm thinking of such factors as braking and fuel economy, not ****ing heated seats. I suppose that the key question for me is whether a given feature is necessary for the functioning of the vehicle, or a luxury for the comfort of the occupants. Without going to the other extreme, asceticism, I dislike luxury.

Incidentally, it's a little paradoxical that the often-criticised (as unintuitive) central controller of electronic systems in BMW cars (even BMW recommend new users return to the dealer after two weeks for an intensive training session) is called 'iDrive'.

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