Wednesday, January 25, 2006

'Feature Creep' and the American Automobile

Robert Farago, the editor of the Truth About Cars website, is one of our favorite writers because (1.) the folks at Kiko's House like cars, (2.) most automotive writing is boringly conventional, but he writes outside the box, sometimes way outside the box, and (3.) he usually writes with the pedal to the metal.

In this editorial, Farago muses about the downside of freedom of choice when it comes to automobile gadgetry. An excerpt:

In 1817, Marie-Henri Beyle toured the Uffizi museum. Lost in a maze of galleries, the French novelist was paralyzed by indecision. His heart raced. His breathing was shallow and labored. His mind was completely disoriented. He couldn't move. Beyle eventually wrote about his experience under his pen name, Stendahl. In 1979, Italian psychiatrist Graziella Megherini coined the phrase "Stendahl Syndrome" for people paralyzed by excessive choice. It’s a concept bedeviling supermarkets, web pages and . . . carmakers.

For example, BMW's M5 is considered the ultimate sports sedan. And yet the uber-5er faces a bewildering range of operational decisions: three suspension, shifting and e-traction levels; two horsepower options and eleven gearbox modes. While a hard-core cadre of enthusiasts embrace the Bimmer’s programmability, most newbies sit in the M5's driver’s seat and . . . freeze. After overcoming the initial shock, they rely on one or two factory settings-- or walk away thank Gott in Himmel they own something a lot less complicated.

The M5’s complexity reflects automakers’ overly literal interpretation of America’s favorite shibboleth: freedom of choice. Carmakers clearly believe that the more their products cater to each owner’s personal preferences, the better. You only have to count the number of motors underneath a [Mercedes] S-Class’ seat-- or tally-up the number of ways it can massage, heat or cool its occupant’s hindquarters-- to see the philosophy in action. And it’s not just the luxury playas kissing ass. Even a humble Hyundai Elantra offers eight-way adjustable seats. This sort of multi-variable “feature creep” is spreading through the automotive landscape like electronic kudzu.

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