By Jeffrey the Barak
Walking around the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show gives us the opportunity to see cars, almost every type of car. Even the marques who choose not to display here are usually to be found in the aftermarket hall.
The big newcomer this year was Alfa Romeo, if you can call a 105 year old marque new. Now clearly, many new cars have a certain amount of beauty, and many others have a certain amount of unpleasant ugliness. Ask ten reviewers which is which and you may get ten different opinions. Yes, some people think those crazy Buicks look good. But the modern functions of cars, including information and control features found on dashboards and consoles and doors etc., introduce a design aspect that we have only had to worry about for a decade or so.
And many of the 2016 cars suffer from the same issues, boring, unsightly, poorly arranged displays and controls. Today’s in-car information systems are amazing, and more than we could have imagined in 1990, but are they making us safer or less safe. I can honestly say that the few times I have almost caused a deadly car crash have been when I was paying too much attention to climate and audio controls (otherwise known as knobs and sliders) in traditional old cars, so should I really have a 30 cm touch screen in the middle of my dashboard when I am supposed to be driving the car?
For the answer we need to wait a while and then interview the emergency rooms, morgues and body shops.
The latest iteration of in-car systems may be an evolutionary dead-end. If they prove to be unsafe, they will not continue down this same road. In my opinion, if you are the driver and your moving vehicle kills someone, and your two hands were anywhere other than on the steering wheel, and if you were looking anywhere other than out the windshield, you have no defense.
In fact I remember one day in 1987 when I was painfully rear-ended at high speed by a driver who was changing her cassette tape instead of steering her car. I had to wear a neck brace for weeks after that one.
But just as baffling as the concepts behind what is included in today’s control systems, is how ugly they can look. Yes, stylists have their hand on the design of the dashboards, door panels and consoles, but in many cases it appears that they hung their artist’s berets at the door on the way to their desks.
Look at this dashboard from a 2016 Mini Clubman featuring the expected giant circles.
As nice as that is, I think I much prefer the dash from, the simpler and cleaner 2007 Mini. Possibly the nicest-looking dash ever.
Now look at this one from an all-electric 2016 Fiat 500e.
Clean and artistic work. However look at the dash of the 2016 electric BMW i3.
Not such a beauty with it’s external rectangles. Now below is the typical and normal dash of 2016, the one from a Toyota Camry.
It is functional and your eyes will get used to determining your speed from one of the two traditional red needles, but this design is also a sea of gray plastic.
GMC makes trucks. I don’t like trucks because they are too big, very ugly, they don’t have a trunk, and no-one ever puts anything in the bed anyway. But I do like this heads up display, which I consider to be a great safety feature as it stops the driver from shifting focus from 50 yards ahead to 20 inches ahead.
The importance of art in car interiors is greater than the manufacturers think. It is bad enough that ordinary cars, for example the Honda Accord and the Toyota Corolla, are twice as big as they used to be, while having the same number of seats. And it is sad enough that almost all cars have special bumpers that cost thousands of dollars to fix if you ever bump them, but the madness seems to continue to the insides of many cars.
Now I will readily concede that the layout of the aforementioned Mini dash is not as intuitive as it could be, but at least the speedo is now behind the wheel and the center circle is now the info screen. However, whatever all that is in the lower center may as well not be there. It’s a danger to all. What I would like to see is a perfect melding of safety, functionality and visual beauty.
I think to get there is minimalism. We need to take out many of the things we have been putting in. Too much information is a distraction. In a go kart, you have a steering yoke and nothing else. No-one ever crashed a go kart by looking at the song title on the satellite radio. So a happy balance needs to be found between that kart and a modern passenger car. Less stuff, less danger.
At the 1975 Earl’s Court Motor Show, I was impressed by the heads-up display on the Lagonda. 40 years later I’m still waiting to see those on all cars. Why can I not see my 65 MPH speed displayed on the glass in front of me? A fighter pilot’s life depends on heads up, so why not a car driver’s life? Heads up is a popular aftermarket add-on, and whenever the aftermarket fills a niche, it shows us that the manufacturers are not serving our needs.
And what do we really need to see? The speed of course, plus perhaps how much fuel or charge we have remaining, which gear we are in, and that is about all. We are not redlining around a race circuit and we are not deaf, so why the pretentious rev counter on a passenger car? Why the name of the song and band on the radio? Why do we still have a temperature gauge? Those always show normal temperature in modern cars. Why a symbol for every system that is in perfect order? This is all distraction and should be kept away from the driver, and only appear when something is wrong.
I have met several people who detest their onboard computers and infotainment systems. They hate their joysticks, touch pads, touch screens and displays. There is a demand for simple systems. This is not to say that back-up cameras are not the best thing since mirrors, because they are indeed brilliant! And this is not to say that all the technological bells and whistles should be left out, but we need to declutter the interface.
Until all the cars drive themselves, which is clearly in our future, we have to keep the drivers focused on driving, and we have to work on the general unattractiveness of the fascia.
Jeffrey the Barak likes cars, and yet he doesn’t like cars. This is the fault of the cars.