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I have been moving to a new home this month, and so I had good reason to rent several trucks and cars from Budget. They have all been recent model Detroit vehicles and comfortable to ride in, but what an absolutely unnecessary mess of needless confusion ensued from trying to operate them.

After making cars and trucks for over a hundred years, Detroit should have gotten some simple things right by now, one would think, but NO! In an effort to be aesthetic or smooth or slick, they have made their products difficult and confusing to operate. Which means dangerous and no doubt occasionally deadly. That is my complaint. The vehicles all ran fine, but it was the artistically designed gauges, switches and levers which were bewildering. This might not make any difference after you have driven the thing for a month and know where all the necessary things are located and what they do when treated a certain way. However, when you have a car that is new to you, some things are not obvious and seem to be created with intentional artistic malice. Let me illustrate some of my complaints.

In both the Ford and Chevy car rentals, I had a lot of trouble opening the trunk. Why? Because I couldn’t find the release lever for the locking mechanism, and it wasn’t just me because I enlisted the help of my partner, who couldn’t find them either. We may be ignorant of these devices but we aren’t dumb. It is the designers of these switches and buttons who are stupid. They designed their cars so poorly that it requires some serious exploration to find and use devices that should be obvious to a blind person approaching the car for the first time. I do mean a blind person, because nearly half of the time, here on planet Earth, it is dark and even we sighted people are functionally blind, and furthermore there is always a first time we approach something.

Why are the vehicles’ devices and gauges labeled with almost incomprehensible icons, drawn in very fine lines requiring 20/20 vision to see and interpret even in good light? Some of these icons are needed to perform basic functions, say opening the trunk or turning a light ON — which obviously needs to be done in the dark. An icon should have been invented and standardized many decades ago for each of these functions. Icons with tactile meaning should be designed into the shape of physically functioning switches and buttons instead of having pictures of the functions printed on the buttons. They should be instantly seen in good light and easily identified by feel in absolute darkness. A light switch, for example, could be indicated by a standard square-shaped toggle switch (found beside most household doorways at a standard height with Up for ON and Down for OFF). Also light switches should be filled with a phosphorescent material so they would glow in the dark.

I would propose The Detroit Test of Usability for car designs. Place the car, or any other thing, in a darkend room and instruct your testees (a typical sample is 100 college freshman psych students)  to walk over to the car and perform some typical action such as turning ON the dome light  There should be a list of these kinds of basic operations that sould be subjected to that simple test with a new car. (Such as — opening the door, opening the trunk lid, opening the hood and checking the oil or water, getting in the car, closing the door and fastening the seat belt, turning ON the headlight, setting the radio to FM 101.1, setting the car temperature to comfortable, starting the car and washing the windows, driving the car forward ten feet, etc.)

The average amount of time it takes an experienced person to perform each task could be compared to how long it takes an inexperienced person to do it. If it takes five seconds for an average experienced person to turn on the dome light and five minutes for the average inexperienced person to do it, you know the design is very poor and should be changed. There should be prizes for poor design as well as the self-congratulatory industry ones for so-called good design — which tends to be stylized visual flimflam.

It took me about five minutes to turn on the back dome light in the GMC rental truck so I could see to unload the truck. It took about that amount of time to open the trunks on both the Ford Focus and the Chevy HHR. There were many similar problems with every new vehicle I encountered, problems that should have been solved and standardized seventy years ago. As I wrote two years ago, there is a difference between ignorance and stupidity.

“You can’t cure stupid!” especially Detroit-stupid. But, you can correct it with real world feedback.

Some things should be simple and obvious on first encounter.

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