TMCNet:  When did all the controls become so out of control? [Virginian - Pilot]

[February 15, 2013]

When did all the controls become so out of control? [Virginian - Pilot]

(Virginian - Pilot Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When I started reviewing cars 18 years ago, figuring out audio system controls wasn't complicated. Knobs operated the volume and tuning of radio stations on the AM or FM band. Five preset buttons contained your favorite stations. Cassette tape and CD players were rare options and had their own easy-to-use controls.


In contrast, the SUV I am driving this week, like many new cars and trucks, offers a bewildering choice of AM, FM, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, HD Radio, CD and music from a smart phone or iPod. It's all controlled by a touch-sensitive LCD screen. It should be easy to operate, right Guess again.

For the sake of keeping things simple, let's say you want to tune in to a radio station and save it as a preset.

Not long ago, this could be accomplished by turning the tuning knob on the radio. Then, once you tuned in your station, you held one of the preset buttons until it beeped.

Done. Two steps.

On this new vehicle, there are four different ways to change the radio station, none as convenient as 20 years ago.

The audio controls are located on a touch screen using software written by Microsoft, a company seemingly incapable of creating a user-friendly interface.

To start, you go to the corner of the home screen that says, "entertainment" and select the desired radio band. The radio screen comes on. Next, search for the on-screen button that says, "direct tune." Touch it. This brings up a small table of numbers. Then, choose the numbers of your desired station and hit another button that reads "enter." The station comes on, but you still haven't saved it as a preset. So, you have to hit another button that reads "presets." This brings up hidden preset buttons. Now, hold one of the six preset buttons until its readout changes.

What once took two steps now takes seven.

If you'd rather not bother with the LCD screen, you could use the touch-sensitive buttons mounted below it and cycle through stations until you reach the desired one. Or, once you've saved the station as a preset, you can use controls mounted on the steering wheel to access it, although that takes several steps as well.

If you're driving alone, any one of these methods requires taking your eyes off the road for some time. Automakers realize this and, in response to safety concerns, have increased the availability of voice activation, which is supposed to address this issue.

But it doesn't.

First of all, in order for voice activation to carry out your command, you have to say words in a pre-determined order spelled out in the owner's manual or the car, like a petulant child, will not respond.

Secondly, it helps if the car understands you.

At the New York International Auto Show a couple years ago, I had a go-round with a top executive from Nuance, the company that supplies voice activation software for many carmakers. I told him his system didn't work for me. For some reason, his software couldn't interpret my voice. He disagreed. His system worked fine; he thought it was my own ineptitude. So, we climbed into a car wherein I proved him wrong.

Much has been made of the fact that Google is developing a driverless car. Between federal regulators and trial lawyers, it should take decades to arrive.

What I want before that is for Apple to design a car interior. If it did, I wouldn't be surprised if the radio had two knobs and five preset buttons.

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