Cars sell on features. That’s some conventional wisdom…take it or leave it. More specifically, the emotions created by a car’s features are what sell. As in, “That sunroof makes me feel like a drive on a summer’s day” or “that sport package makes me feel like I’m 35 instead of 55.” People are willing to pay a great deal for extras that provoke positive emotions in them.
That said, what about the least helpful features in cars? The ones that make you feel less like a summer’s day and more like a rainy Monday morning when you have a job review? Some auto makers appear to be inventing problems that don’t exist just so they can invent solutions that don’t make sense.
Following is a short-list of selling features that seem to give the public indigestion more than excitement. Following are a few favorites.
The passenger seatbelt alarm. Many vehicles add this helpful feature so driver and passenger will be sure to fasten their seatbelts. The alarm will ding helpfully until both parties click. The only problem is that more than half the time, the front seat “passenger” is a bag of groceries. One wonders what the weight limit is to set off the alarm, and did the vehicle’s designers really imagine that there might be five-pound passengers riding in the vehicle? Be sure to buckle up the squirrels, birds and woodland pixies you might be taking for a drive.
The “helpful” power window button. In general, drivers and passengers are pretty good about accepting the onerous responsibility of controlling their own power windows, which is why the “helpful” version is so frustrating. Touch the button to crack the window and the window rolls all the way down. (“Look! I’m helping you!) You want the window half open? Sorry…you’ll need to engage in a complex and mysterious ritual of backward and forward Morse-code-style button pushes to arrive at the coveted state of “window half open.”
Manuals written by middle-schoolers. There’s a reason vehicle’s owner’s manuals are usually discarded and never used by drivers. Their language often seems to have been run through a computer translation engine three times (after having been originally written by Yoda), and their organization is illogical to the point of comedy. Forbes contributor Josh Max tells the story of arriving at a gas station in a new car and being unable to figure out how to open the gas cap.
“I looked in the manual under ‘gas,’ ‘petrol,’ ‘lid,’ and any other search term I could think of,” he wrote. “Finally, I started with ‘A’ in the manual with my index finger. I went through almost the entire book until I came to ‘W’ and found what I was looking for: ‘What to do when you need to put gas in the vehicle.’”
Speech recognition. It drives us crazy when we call customer support. It lets us down when we use it on our smartphones. So let’s put it in cars! Some speech systems are better at understanding natural language than others…Android is well reviewed in this way. Others are not, according to CNET’s Roadshow.
“Voice recognition is literally the worst when you yourself need to learn a new way of speaking to make the system understand you,” wrote Roadshow’s Tim Stevens. “Plenty of cars on the road require that you pause between city, state and street names, all of which must be spoken in the right sequence, all intoned precisely lest you confuse the poor, stupid thing.”
Gesture controls. This one sounds like the plot of a “Mr. Bean” sketch right from the get-go. Wave your hands and arms around this way, and you can turn up the radio. Wave them that way, and you can turn on the windshield wipers. It doesn’t seem hard to arrive at the conclusion that any feature that requires the driver to perform the Village People’s “YMCA” is going to cause trouble on the road.