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Yesterday, I drove a new Chevrolet Impala for eight hours. It was a rental car which we picked up in Bend, Oregon, and dropped off at the foot of Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. It is a wonderful car in so many ways. It had a smooth, quiet ride aided by the comfortable many-positioned seat. This made the driving the most pleasant of my many trips along that highway.

Chevy Impala - 2011

I drove this Chevy Impala for 8 hours from Bend, Oregon to Berkeley, CA

I could carry on about this car’s many virtues, but the advertising will do a fine job of that pleasant task. What I want to do now is give these supposedly intelligent and well paid people in Detroit something to think about the next time they try to design and sell one of these menaces to the health of living human beings.

When I got into the car, I expected to be confused by the meaningless tiny icons representing something perhaps intelligible to an ancient Egyptian scribe. I wasn’t disappointed. The icons were tiny and their functions were equally obscure. I want, demand and deserve the functions of various buttons, switches, levers, knobs, icons and gauges to be absolutely obvious as to their operation and easily reverted to a neutral condition when the control is switched back to its starting position. I mentioned this the other day under the heading of The Detroit Test of Usability. By which I mean that an inexperienced person approaching a new item should be able to operate it expertly upon first encounter.

This car kept me busy for a minute trying to figure out how to get the trunk open. The last two rental cars took perhaps five minutes, but having learned something and having failed to open this one, I turned to my partner. She didn’t get stuck on the little icon of a car with a trunk lid open with a little rotatable knob beside it. I thought that might open the trunk. It didn’t. I think it might have turned on the trunk light and adjusted the brightness. But what does that matter if you can’t open the lid? The rear seat pulls down so you can see into the trunk from the cabin, but we had a large box to put in and so needed the lid opened. She discovered that the icon itself needed to be pushed. I hadn’t gone to the trouble of pushing an icon printed onto a smooth surface. To me, an old Air Force pilot, a little wheel represented the landing gear which when pushed down put the wheels down and when lifted up lifted the wheels up, and a little handle that looked and felt like a wing flap when pushed down put the flaps down and when lifted up lifted them. The symbol is not the thing, of course, but a tiny picture of a thing is even less the thing than a little physical model of the thing. She pushed the little picture and the lid opened. Now I know, but it seemed everything was somehow hidden. Imagine a pilot who for some reason had lost cabin lights trying to land an airplane at night using invisible icons on a flat panel. Hmm?

So having put our box in the trunk, it was time to get in and go. Not so fast, Charlie! First, I must adjust the seat because it was set in the full back position. Just right for a seven-foot basketball center, but not for me. So I reached under the seat where the forward-backward release lever is located, grabbed some steel and lunged forward. BIG MISTAKE!!! Where the lever has been located for the last fifty years is now a jumble of sharp-edged steel stampings, which I pulled gingerly upon. My fingers were not cut, but just barely. Feeling a little bit like a old fool I immediately went back to the office and was obviously distraught about this near de-fingering. The young guy came out to the car to give me a few pointers and told me that he wears bandages all the time from similar events with the many cars he must work with on a daily basis. It isn’t my fault or the fault of this car attendant that we got injured, it is the stupid Detroit designers who never test how their designs work, but only how they look. Cars that look smooth may have very sharp edges just out of sight. After being shown a tiny lever to the side of the seat, which I had discovered power-tilted the seat forward and back, but had to be shown that this same lever also powered it forward and backward when pushed in the proper directions, things worked quite well. And I wasn’t actually bleeding yet.

So there we were cruising smoothly along the beautiful Central Oregon highway 97, through the pine forests, with snow-covered mountains off to the west, when it comes time for a cup of coffee. No problem. We have a really nicely designed stainless steel thermos bottle from Nissan filled with boiling water. My partner pours out a little container of pre-measured coffee into the near ubiquitous 8-ounce styrofoam cup and carefully sets it into the cup holder in the center space. Once again BIG MISTAKE!!! It is nearly impossible for the driver to retrieve a standard cup from the cup holder, because you can’t get your fingers far enough down onto the cup to lift it properly.

Chevy-Impala cupholder

Chevy Impala's difficult cup-holder and misplaced seat-belt anchor slot.

I am not a klutz! and yet I managed to spill some boiling coffee on my fingers on first try. It was very painful because I could neither set the cup down quickly nor drop it because that would splash boiling water over who knows who. So, I allowed my fingers to be scalded. They hurt for ten minutes but that was all, fortunately. If this stupidly designed cup holder had only been tested with a variety of standard things which might have been placed in it, the designers would have discovered the easy fix of having a slot run down both sides of the opening to the natural gripping point for the driver’s fingers. The way this thing was made only a bit of the rim of the cup was exposed and it was nearly impossible to put one’s arm and hand into the right position to get the cup out while driving. This is a really dangerous design flaw and may well cause some fatal accidents when someone is distracted from driving while trying to cope with getting their coffee cup out of this poorly designed holder.

In addition to those problems, probably a lot of people will not be fastening their seat belts on this car because the mechanism is set too low and is difficult to reach. This would be especially a problem for people with large bellies. If the anchor and slot were raised about three inches on a stalk, the hand holding the insert prong could simultaneously surround the stalk and the prong and pull the anchor into position with one easy motion.

Car designers, please submit your cars to the Detroit Test of Usability.