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Today’s cars can drive you…crazy

A few years ago, after a delayed all-night cross-country red-eye to California, I tumbled into my rental car at LAX and sped off, late for a business-travel conference in Long Beach. 

As I headed out of the airport, I couldn’t figure out how to turn off or even turn down the radio, which was blasting hip-hop music at belt-grinder volume. Meanwhile, the rear wipers were slapping away on a sunny day, and I had no idea how to stop them. On the 405 South, I was informed that my emergency blinkers were on when a car swerved up, horn honking, with the driver shouting angrily and waving.  I stabbed anxiously at the dashboard display. The sunroof slid open. 

This triggered a realization that, a great many decades after I first got a driver’s license, I was no longer fully situationally adept at just hopping into a rental car, turning on the ignition, and driving away with long-accumulated knowledge of how cars work. Confusion today mounts as complex car-automation technologies spread. Among these innovations are emergency-braking, pre-collision, and lane-departure-navigational systems, to name just a few. And there is no end to it all.

“For a great many drivers, 2019 will mark a revolution in driving on a scale never before seen,” two scientists say in a recent report in the Journal of Cognitive Engineering and Decision Making.

“Until now, the need for drivers to know about how cars work has been minimal. The basic controls of the car [could] be quickly mastered,” say the authors, Stephen M. Casner, a flight instructor and research psychologist at NASA, and Edwin L. Hutchins, a cognitive scientist at the University of California San Diego. 

It’s becoming more of a challenge for us drivers to quickly master the “mode complexities” of these technologies in our own new-model cars—but the job is even tougher when the car we hop into is an unfamiliar model we acquired at a rental agency. “More challenging still is the situation in which drivers rent vehicles that contain this equipment …leaving them little time to inform themselves about how the car works,” write Casner and Hutchins with some alarm.

The two researchers see some similarities to the mid-1970s and 1980s, when complex new aircraft technology “changed the task of flying the airplane in surprising and fundamental ways” and unexpected problems emerged as pilots interacted with what the industry began to call “automation surprises.” In response, the aviation industry embarked on study and training programs to define and mitigate cognitive and other issues of situational awareness “to help pilots understand their new role as team players in a new cockpit consisting of both humans and automation.”

The automotive world, argue Casner and Hutchins, needs to heed that precedent and devise better ways to educate drivers who buy or rent new cars with an enormous array of navigational and other systems that often differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. When renting vehicles, drivers routinely encounter “cars made by any number of manufacturers,” they point out.

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The results of a survey presented in 2016 to a National Transportation Safety Board panel show that 40 percent of drivers of cars with advanced automation reported that “their vehicle reacted in a way that startled them or in a manner they did not expect,” Casner and Hutchins write.

Their focus was on the safety and navigational aspects of advanced driver-assistance automation, and on the need for manufacturers and car-rental companies to provide more readily absorbable user information—especially as self-driving vehicles are poised to enter the market in coming years. 

But as I encounter routinely in rental cars—and in my own 2019 Subaru Forrester, which came with eight user manuals—dashboard functions that once worked well with a good old knob, dial, or push button now are designed with display interfaces that can be infuriating and difficult to understand. 

The technology columnist David Pogue agreed, in an article in Scientific American last spring titled “Automobile Dashboard Technology Is Simply Awful.”

Pessimistically, he wrote: “A good user interface (A) is easy to navigate, (B) puts frequently used controls front and center, (C) gives clear feedback as you make a change, and (D) is apparently beyond the capabilities of today’s car companies.”

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