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This blog has complained about several American cars which I have driven from Bend, Oregon, back to Berkeley, California. Detroit just  can’t seem to get it right. and I may be dumb, but I’m not Detroit-stupid. But this time it is the Korean, Hyundai, that has made a beautiful car in so many ways but has such confusing driver controls as to be dangerous.

Hyundai Santa Fe

Me and my Hyundai Santa Fe 2011 at a rest stop along Highway 97.

What annoys me about all the current cars I have driven this last two months is that the controls have been prettified to the point they are difficult to use. They do function well enough, in fact perfectly, once you figure them out, but they are unnecessarily arcane and figuring out some stupidly designed switches while hurtling down the highway is deadly dangerous foolishness. Apparently the various companies put their switches and other controls in different locations under different icons and have them move in different ways to acquire some sort of brand individuality. After an owner has been driving a particular car for a month he will learn how to operate most of the functions of most of the controls and find settings for each of them which function well enough. But the beautification and uniqueness come at a terrible price. It creates confusion and that is dangerous. All controls should be obvious in their function and operation, and they should return to a default position at a clearly marked and probably notched location.

This Hyundai had a clearly marked, notched gear shift which was much better than the Chevrolet Impala from last week, which had a straight line shift lever with no notches or markings, and it was impossible to tell what gear that car was in from feel or by looking at the lever itself. Instead of that simple solution, there was a rather small display of individual letters on the instrument panel. The Hyundai may have looked stranger, but its function was clear and it could be operated totally by touch and feel. That was very good, but very bad was their under-the-steering-wheel levers for controlling the lights and windshield washer.

Hyundai totally failed with their windshield washer control lever because they put so many secondary functions on the lever that it became nearly impossible to make the washer do what was needed. Multiple twisting, pulling, pushing options on the lever, each with multiple functions, made something so simple as swiping the windshield almost impossible to control. Each of the functions worked mechanically just fine; the problem was trying to get the thing to do what was needed.

The real insanity occurred after a little rain which required running the wipers for a few minutes, changing the speed of swipes, and squirting the washing fluid on the glass, when it became impossible to turn the wipers OFF. I pushed and pulled, twisted and untwisted for a couple of minutes, all without success and while driving at highway speed. I turned to my passenger and she fiddled with the thing for another couple of minutes and we were almost convinced the complex switch was malfunctioning when she happened to hit the right combination. We quickly redid the whole sequence to be sure we learned the simple task of turning off the windshield wiper.

That crazy experience wasn’t our fault, it was the designers’ fault. If this device were submitted to the Probaway – Detroit Test of Usability there would be many people unable to learn to operate this windshield wiper while driving the car. And very few in under two minutes. An operation so simple as turning off a device like a windshield wiper should be discoverable and done within a few seconds, even by an person inexperienced with the car.

With all the Consumer Report magazines and other car magazines, why hasn’t the automobile industry, and other industries too, been compelled by public opinion to make their equipment function easily? The computers have come a long way toward easy operation, even though they are more complex to operate than a car. A web site I reviewed last month in the post WeatherSpark presents complex data clearly shows how it can be done. What can be done?

Consumers of the World – demand tactile switches with obvious functions.