When we walked into the technology conferences at the L.A. Auto Show and found the rooms half-empty, it became clear our market doesn’t choose vehicles based solely on their auto-pilot features or onboard cellular modems. Sure, those things are nice and all, and if you read every trend report out there, it’s exactly what younger buyers want these days because cars are mobile devices and mobile devices get replaced every 12 months. These kind of features aren’t mandated by government agencies, either. The cloud-connected infotainment and pay-in-your-car gadgets we’ll be seeing shortly are here to make headlines, and judging by customer response to the myriad of touchscreens, mouse controllers and rotary dials on the market, automakers are moving too fast without testing these products for reliability and usability.
Hence, we see fully digital high-resolution instrument panels like the one on the 2016 Audi TT:
It is an object of computerized delight, and for programmers, the ultimate blank canvas to spawn creative ways of displaying physical, analog information. It also is one of the most perplexing things I’ve ever used in a new car. Animations, full-screen maps, split-screen maps and audio controls, giant phone books, tiny tachometers, carousel menus, list menus, scrolling menus, sub menus of sub menus — all controlled by small knobs, buttons, a large touch-sensitive knob, and rocker switches. Half of those controls are on the steering wheel, or if you like, you can use your free right hand and fumble on the center console instead. It is one beautiful distraction away from a serious crash — and I’m not talking about the computer running it, which in 20 years will be so obsolete that no dealer will service it anymore when it fails. No one asked for this.
How about cars like the whimsical Toyota i-Road?
Motorcyclists aren’t even asking for this.
So what about hydrogen cars? Will we all press buttons like this one on the 2016 Toyota Mirai?
We are asking for cheaper, cleaner, renewable fuels, and hydrogen would be a great solution if it could be extracted in high volume with minimal energy losses. That’s not the case, and of the 13 public hydrogen stations, all but two are in California. Few people are interested in paying more for a car that can do less, even if all it emits is water vapor.
What is it that people want? They want technology but they’d like it work first, last, and every time. They would prefer not to be guinea pigs and beta testers. That’s why prototypes and focus groups exist. Give us cool, fancy electronics, but don’t offer it as the only solution. The Audi TT’s digital dash and every other dash like it is not a luxury. It’s another way of doing the same thing, which, last time we checked, was driving — specifically, driving safely and without a sensory overload.