Tuesday, April 03, 2007

See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

Lexus RX400 interface (top) pretty good, BMW iDrive (bottom) pretty bad
How many of us haven't been frustrated by having to deal with tiny buttons and knobs on car stereos, cell phones and even coffee makers.

As Glenn Reynolds (yes, that one) notes in a Popular Mechanics commentary:
"Not so long ago, if I wanted to adjust the heat in my car, or the volume on my car radio, I could grab a nice, simple knob. Turn it to the right, and the car got warmer, or the radio got louder. Turn it the other way, and the opposite occurred. I could always sense how far I was adjusting things — without ever taking my eyes off the road — because millions of years of evolution have produced a neurological feedback mechanism that lets me know just how much I'm turning my wrist.

"Easy, effective, intuitive. That's simply good design, right? You'd think. But in most late-model cars, making those kinds of adjustments requires pushing buttons multiple times, or navigating menus within menus, and — almost always — taking your eyes off of the road."
A great example of what Glenn is talking about is BMW's ridiculously over-engineered iDrive system, which is controlled by a toggle below the shifter between the front seats. Talk about having to take your eyes of the road!

Car critics are unanimous about the iDrive:
It sucks.
Meanwhile, the Dear Friend & Conscience was given a spanking new 2007 Lexus RX400 Hybrid SUV over a long weekend while her 2001 Lexus RX330, which is closing in on 200,000 trouble-free miles, was in for a major service.

The RX400 Hybrid is a thing of beauty and my few minor complaints about the DF&C's older model have been ironed out. The 4-liter hybrid gasoline engine-electric motor system operated flawlessly and returned terrific gas mileage.

Then there's the menu interface in a binnancle at the center top the dashboard, which includes a sophisticated GPS system with memory, detailed schematics of what the hybrid system is doing, a rear camera that is activated when the driver shifts into reverse, and menus for audio, climate control, and so on.

At first, the interface seemed overwhelming and required taking my eyes off the road.
But then a funny thing happened.

As quickly as you can say "premium unleaded gasoline," which the RX400 requires, I got the hang of the system and was toodling alone just fine while briefly taking one eye off of the road to change radio stations or glance at the GPS.

I suppose that the moral of the story is that as overwhelming as the technology in higher-end cars can be these days, some (such as the Audis that I drove for years) are engineered with the driver in mind, not despite the driver.
Click here for more on the RX400 Hybrid.

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