Wednesday, August 27, 2008


I’ve got a new car. After 6½ years, the trusty Golf has trickled down the family and is now being driven by my Son-in-Law. A new Audi sits in our driveway, and a very good car it is too – comfortable, economical, fast, smooth, good to look at, and after 7,000 miles faultless, apart from a CD player that refuses to relinquish the first disc I ever put in it. For the last three months, I’ve been listening to Martha Argerich playing Chopin – marvellous stuff, but whoever said “Variety is the spice of life” may have had a point.

Six years in a car’s lifetime is about a generation, and the Audi, although built by the same VW group, has moved on. Mostly for the good, but there has been a transformation in the way some of the controls are laid out in the car which seem to me to be heading backwards at a rate of knots.

Try something simple, like changing the radio station. In the Golf, you decided you wanted a change, so you stick out a pinky, poke a button with Radio 3 numbered on it, and Lo and Behold, you get Radio 3. Simple. And effective.

In the new car, some bright spark in Audi has replaced all this with what they call the Multi Media Interface (MMI), which consists of buttons and dials, twisty-turny things and, in my case, two LCD readouts. All very Hi-tech, and if you want to feel like Captain Kirk on the Enterprise, this one’s right up your street.

Except of course, it doesn’t work. Well no, it does work, but Simply and Effectively – No, No, No.

I measure these things by the length of time I’m looking at the dials rather than the road, and, unless I’m getting a bit slow in picking things up these days, I can now travel huge distances, in total blindness, changing the radio station, or getting the AirCon fan to go a bit faster.

So far, I haven’t hit anything.

But look at the process. You take your eyes off the road and fumble your way to the first button which selects either Radio, CD, Set-up or Car. They are conveniently set quite close together so you can’t do it by feel, and they’re set really low so you’ve got to stare into your navel to see them – but they do look very nice. A menu then pops up on one or both screens. You look at it, you decide you want to move the Radio Station, or the Aircon Setting three notches, and you twiddle the knob. It’s very sensitive, and easily over-cooked, so you have to look at the screen either while you’re doing it, or afterwards to check that what you’ve done is correct. Then, when you’ve convinced yourself that Aircon7 or Radio 3 is highlighted, and you’re about to do what you set out to do, you press the central knob to reach your destination. Oh, and if you want something buried a little deeper in the menus, there are another seven little buttons, all nestling together right down near your thigh to make you spend even more time not looking where you’re going.

You can see the mind of a rather repressed Academic Engineer or a nerdy Software geek in the way it has been thought through. I am sure it sounded really good in the guy’s bedroom late in the night he first lashed it up, but a dose of reality wouldn’t have come amiss. Someone should have taken the car away for a week and used it – in the dark, when it’s raining, in traffic, with a child and/or a Mother-in-Law screeching in the back, or when you're just in a rotten mood after a row with the boss. Real Life in fact - he might then have realised that he’d gone one step forward, and several backwards.

BMW led the way with this trend – they called it the iDrive, and apparently it is even more unintuitive than the Audi version, so goodness knows how I’d get on with one of those. It sounds like doing Sudoku on the move.

Predictably, the Car magazines like Autocar think these fancy new interfaces are the Best thing since Sliced Bread, but the men who write for them always work on the basis that New is Better, and are a bit slow in thinking these things through. The result is that the car companies, who hang on every word the journalists write, rather than listen to the poor sods who buy the cars, get sunshine blown up their exhaust pipe, and think they’ve created a miracle. So guess what their next development will be like – even more complicated, and in my simple view, even more potentially dangerous. The Marketing people will sort it out for them though – they’ll sell it as a Safety Feature. That always works.


Now, rewind the Tape of Life about 15 years ago to show that nothing in life is new. A friend at work lent me a new Company car he’d just taken delivery of. It was (pause for laughter) an MG Maestro. This was the vehicular equivalent of a “Fur Coat and No Knickers” car – a staid family hold-all, dressed up with a few fancy, eye catching goodies, snazzy paint, and wide wheels, to raise the marketing profile. A new Safety Feature on this car operated as a warning system by talking to you rather than using little lights to warn you of impending doom. So, instead of a little red light coming on when your engine oil was getting a bit low, a man’s voice appeared and calmly told you that actually, the last drop of your oil had now just gone, and that you’d just scrapped your engine.


The only problem was that my friend omitted to mention this feature to me. So I’m driving off home, through the North London Suburbs, and looking forward to the bit where the Motorway starts, and I can have a bit of a blast. It’s dark, I’m on my own, it’s not my car, and there’s no-one else on the roads. So piling onto the slip road to join the Motorway, I’m flat out in third gear, doing about 80 mph round the swooping approach road. I’m concentrating quite hard as I stare into the darkness, hold the car on the curve and hit the main carriageway.

All of a sudden, in the dark, a disembodied voice booms out.


"What the ......!!!!" All I can say about this brand new safety feature, developed at the cost of many, many thousands of pounds, is it was a very good thing that the road I’d just joined had three carriageways, because in the next couple of seconds, I used all three – and not just once.

Oh, and it was also very helpful that my friend had chosen Brown for the colour of the upholstery.

So safety features – usually Yes, occasionally No.



1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

I know that voice. It also says "terrain, terrain.... too low, gear! Whoop, whoop! Pull Up! Pull! Up!"

Sends shivers down my spine...