Today’s cars are dumb where they should be smart, and smart where they should be dumb. Enough. Make a car that’s pretty much all dumb and watch it sell – because what automakers are giving people is so bad they’ll pay more for less.
Cars are now like budget smartphones on wheels: loaded with bloatware, unintuitive and slow to operate. Car manufacturers have always struggled with user interfaces, but until recently the biggest problem we had was “too many buttons”. How I long for these days!
The proliferation of touchscreens and LCDs has made every car look like a karaoke booth. Animations show energy recovered from braking, speedometer changes color as you approach the threshold, fan speed and direction are in three menus. And besides not being functional, these interfaces are even ugly! The type, layouts, and animations scream “designed by committee and approved by someone who doesn’t need to use it.”
Not to mention privacy and security concerns. I was in doubt the first time I saw a GPS in a car, my mother’s old RX300, about 20 years ago. “Yeah… that’s how they get you”, I thought. And now, Teslas with missed payments are seized. Welcome to the future – your car is a narc now!
The ultimate indignity is that these features are being sold as high-end, not low-market options. The screens are so cheap you can buy a few million and use them everywhere, for everything, and tell shoppers “enjoy the next generation of mobility!” But in reality, it’s a cost-saving measure that reduces part numbers and lets your panel team toss the can down the road as many times as they want. You know this for sure because high-end models are going back to buttons and dials for that “premium feel”.
So here’s what I’d like: a dumb car. That’s what I think it looks like.
dare to be stupid
First of all: no screens. This is for a number of reasons, both practical and aesthetic.
Practically speaking, almost everything these screens do is already done by smartphones. No need for a deeply outdated, slow, manufacturer-branded Spotify or Apple Music app, your phone already does that perfectly. Navigation, likewise, is handled seamlessly over the phone. Both, I hardly need to add, already work well with voice commands as well.
Not having GPS or data (or hidden microphones or cameras) also makes your vehicle feel more private, obviously. Sure, they can still grab your phone, but at least they’ll need to put a GPS pack on your landing gear, like old times, if they want to track your movements beyond that.
For media, an auxiliary input does it all. It works like a charging cable and you can easily swap it for different and new devices. Include some smart cable routing and your phone can be conveniently mounted in multiple places around the cockpit – not that you should look at it or touch it (use your words). If you want Bluetooth, I have a dongle for you. The only thing the car should have is a volume dial, perhaps a basic three-button playback control cluster on the steering wheel.
As for the climate controls on those big central LCDs, a few buttons will do that. Nobody really believes these “zone” things work, right? No car is big enough to have zones in it. A blue to red dial, fan selection, and A/C and recirculation toggles do this very well.
On the dashboard we can have common needle gauges. Speed, fuel, oil, temperature and the usual silly lights: check engine, low tire pressure, etc.
Aesthetically, digital versions have always bothered me. Drivers should focus on the road, but these groups often have bright, distracting information that is constantly changing. The difference between 69 and 70 on a gauge is one-eighth of an inch, as is the difference between 67 and 68 and 68 and 69. This continuous, predictable variation is intuitive and accurate enough for virtually any driving purpose. On a digital display, the numbers are big and flashing, constantly catching your eye as they drop from 71 to 69, numbers that look completely different and you can’t check out of the corner of your eye.
Keep it simple, keep it safe
Losing media and navigation means we can run out of much of the computing power that goes into a modern car, but we don’t want to run out of it entirely. There are safety features introduced in recent years that should be included in every new car, smart or dumb. Traction control, blind spot and lane departure warnings, and even automatic emergency braking all require a certain amount of CPU power and they must get it, because they save lives. Backup cameras are one thing people might not want to be without – but you’d be surprised how informative a basic proximity beeper is.
The engine itself is also much more computerized than in the old days. Unlike cab computerization, however, this has many positive effects, such as better mileage, lower emissions, better reliability, and easier diagnostics for maintenance. The exact level of electronics needed for safe, responsive pedals and steering is likely a matter of debate, but we can leave that to the experts.
I’m tempted to order manual handles and door locks, but that would put us over the affectation line (if we haven’t already left that line behind). We are not trying to recreate old cars, but rather to make a modern one stripped of superfluous technology. Electric seat adjustment, however, is a luxury even today. Use the lever.
Note that nothing I have proposed is specific to gasoline-powered cars; electric vehicles are just as prone to these bad decisions as the rest. It’s not about nostalgia, it’s about abandoning a pernicious but universally followed design philosophy. (…Okay, it’s a little bit about nostalgia, but only a little.)
Of course, what I’m describing, despite its apparent simplicity, probably amounts to something like a luxury vehicle, as it doesn’t aim to minimize costs. Almost all existing car lines are designed with the “latest” technology in mind and eliminating it is a big change from existing molds, assembly work, quality control and so on. Also, while I think the concept would appeal to many, it still wouldn’t sell much. It’s a niche vehicle for sure, and the price would reflect that.
Still, all I want is a car that isn’t as cocky as every other device I already own, sending me notifications, dings, reporting bugs, asking for permissions, needing updates – my god! All the spurious “in my time” argument aside, there just isn’t much point to these features now, certainly not enough to justify their prominence or low quality. Let’s see what it’s like to make a car that focuses on letting the driver drive and accommodate rather than trying to replace the supercomputers we all carry in our pockets.