The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00404: Car Ergonomics

Key concepts
automobile design, design criticism, ergonomics, John Phillips, Car and Driver magazine, Nissan Quest
Attention Conservation Notice:
I found this article to be witty, insightful and delightful, but then again, I just bought a hybrid electric Honda Civic with a highly unorthodox instrument panel.


The legendary "curse of oil" crushes Africa's so-called governments. What comes after "failed states," eh? Could it be the curse of oil for a "Failed Globe"?

Wow, here's your chance to live in a home made of big recycled shipping containers.

"Natural computation." Hey, nice oxymoron.
The Eighth International Conference on Parallel Problem Solving from Nature (PPSN VIII), 18-22 September 2004, Birmingham, UK

Source: Car and Driver magazine, March 02004

MARCH 23, 2004

"Say so long to cockpit ergonomics." BY JOHN PHILLIPS April 2004

"There's a Joseph Conrad-derived scene in Apocalypse Now when Captain Willard says, 'They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were, uh, unsound.' (((Hey wait a minute == is this a car review in CAR AND DRIVER? This guy's good!)))

"Colonel Kurtz asks, 'Are my methods unsound?'

"And Willard replies, 'Uh, I don't see any method at all, sir.'

"Exactly. I see no method in modern cockpit ergonomics. Remember ergonomics? It's become a lost science, as denigrated as astrology and apparently less useful. In part, I blame in-dash navigation systems and so-called automatic climate controls, which together have done to ergonomics what Arthur Andersen did to corporate accounting. (((Woah.)))

"Why do so many nav systems take precedence in the center stack, ousting vital secondary controls to regions more readily controlled by passengers? I use the radio and HVAC controls daily, hourly, minute by minute, yet rely on the GPS to guide me less than twice per month. (That's a lie. I've never used a GPS.) At what point did buyers come to equate vehicular value with electronic complexity? (((At this point, I'm settling right in and munching taco chips.)))

"I recently drove a Nissan Quest for 13 days and 1000 miles. Many of its secondary controls are located on a big pie plate that juts up from where the center stack should be. A swell idea, sure, except there's no room for the CD player on this pie plate, so it's been relegated to a shelf below. It's invisible to the driver. To insert a disc, you just stab and poke the CD randomly into shadows down around your knees. (((He's got a gift! No doubt about it.)))

"Or you can pull over, put the vehicle in park, unfasten your belt, stick your head between the front seats, and grope for a spell. Even when you do find the slot, your CD won't be accepted until you locate the 'load' button, which apparently makes a kind of dinner reservation for music.

(((Maybe one should forget about those dangerous CDs and go back to chatting on the cellphone as one drives.)))

"Prominent on the Quest's pie plate are three large rotary knobs that operate the HVAC system. Below them are radio and GPS controls. Touch any of these and you may actually cause something to happen, but you won't know what until you raise your head and consult a big LCD screen located behind the pie plate and atop the dash. It's in a different focal plane.

"To tune the radio you must first take your eyes off the road, readjust your vision to activate one of 14 different radio buttons, readjust your vision to study the LCD screen above and behind, then readjust your vision a third time to focus on the FedEx truck you're about to T-bone.

(((Move over, Jakob Nielsen, Donald Norman!))) "What's more, if you're driving at dawn or at dusk or with your lights on during dreary days == as happened to me during all four days of the Thanksgiving weekend == the icons and digits appearing on the LCD are too dim to read. To determine whether the defroster was on, I once had to pull over, turn the headlights

off, then cup my hand over a bevy of LCD glyphs, of which there are 22. (((!))) It's like having to turn on the TV in your den to find out whether your oven is cooking at 350 degrees.

"To alter the Quest's driver's-side cockpit temp, you twist the left-most rotary knob nearly three inches to port (to subtract a degree) or three inches to starboard (to add). The temp you've summoned flashes in little digits on the LCD screen, not even in the same area code as the rotary control.

((("Area code" problem, huh? Good thing I've got roaming on that cellphone!)))

"This control, by the way, is spring-loaded to let you know it resents being twisted. (((This brilliant rhetorical move is what John Ruskin used to call "the pathetic fallacy," and lo, it is the very living soul of Victorian poesy.))) It takes one second for each new digit to flash up on the LCD. To adjust the fan speed, you must focus on the center of the rotary knob, which is split in half, creating two hemispherical rocker switches. Now it gets really complicated: Push the topmost lip of the top rocker to increase fan speed.

(((I know that it's getting "really complicated," but by now I trust the narrator completely.)))

"Push the lowermost lip of the lower rocker to decrease fan speed. Misdirect a finger by a fraction and nothing

at all happens. Poke the upper half of the center rotary control to change where air blows == in your eyes, up your pants. (((Just relax == we're in the hands of a master here.))) But everything here responds so lethargically == and requires such pinpoint finger accuracy in one plane and detailed observation of a largely illegible LCD in another == that it's like operating a toaster with your toes.

(((I hope this John Phillips writes books.)))

"Beneath the trio of sulking Stephen Hawking rotary

knobs (((that's the rapierlike coup de grace))) are two more panels of pushbuttons == 28 in all, more than exist letters in our alphabet. (((I stand in awe.))) One set is ostensibly for the GPS, one for the radio. Except mixed in with the nav controls are the radio's seek and tune buttons, making for a kind of year-long

electronic Easter-egg hunt. If I wanted to pay to be simultaneously astounded, mystified, and duped, I'd get married again."

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