Thursday, January 12, 2012

A potential problem with next-generation autos?

Jalopnik published an article yesterday titled 'The Sad Death Of The Knob, Switch And Button'. Here's an excerpt.

... LCD dashboards in so many new cars here at the Detroit Auto Show are a genuinely great advance. Except for one big issue: Knobs, switches and buttons? They're now officially doomed.

Knobs are still around, albeit in reduced numbers, but it's very clear they're considered vestigial holdouts and it's just a matter of time before they're done away with completely. Looking at forward-thinking cars like the Tesla Model S demonstrates this, as its dash is basically just two big iPads, one in landscape orientation and the other in portrait.

A booth from Denso, a major supplier of auto parts and electronics, shows a prototype cockpit of the future — and it's all touch screens. Touch screens are great on our phones and tablets; so why wouldn't they be great in a car, right?

. . .

Have you ever peeked in the cockpit of an airplane and seen the levers in between the seats? Those levers have funny-shaped knobs: Spool-shaped, crown-shaped, star-shaped — it's the marshmallows from a Lucky Charms box. There is, of course, a great reason why they're like that: so pilots can know what lever is what just by touch.

That's exactly what is being given up when controls move to the touch screen. Tactile feedback and the ability to feel what a control is has long been part of driving.

Traditionally, we can feel and know what's a radio knob, what a climate control lever feels like, how the notches feel as we move them from one setting to another, and it's worked great. Even without any interior lights or dash lights I bet most of us could find and use the essential controls on our cars.

Touch screens are awesome for many, many things. They look great, they can show an incredible amount of information, but they should never be the only components on a dash.

There's more at the link.

Jalopnik is quite right about the problem of not being able to use a touch-screen control unless one can look at it - and that's frequently not safe to do while driving. However, there's another problem with touch-screens, one highlighted by blogger and author Frank W. James when he described his frustrations while trying to use a smartphone.

... the Droid locks itself every time you shut it off and to use it you first have to 'unlock' it through use of the touchscreen. It has command buttons on the bottom, but to unlock it you have to slide a finger across the screen. Why? The touchscreen works off the 'heat' of your fingertip. To do that you have to remove your gloves, but today I had to shut the chainsaw off first before taking the gloves off. (See where I'm going with this?) Okay, by the time I get to the almighty touchscreen, I have to unlock it as well as touch a 'green box' in the lower left of the screen to access my phone call, ONLY THE DAMN PHONE WON'T RECOGNIZE MY FINGERTIP. I missed the call, actually 'calls', because I've had calls from everywhere from California and beyond and who the Hell knows who they were because I couldn't get my damn phone to work.

You know most people have (counting their thumbs) ten fingertips. I have nine and some of those left are not in the best of shape. Maybe that's why this damn thing won't react to my touch. But all the Gucci features in the world are more or less meaningless if the damn phone won't work as, you know, a phone.

I was over at the county seat for a dentist visit after lunch and I stopped at the 'phone' store. I told the guy I want something with a real 'push-button'. Something you don't have to take a work glove off to get the damn thing to work. Can't do it. Droids only come in touchscreens. Which tells me right away whomever designed the Droid never had to 'sweat' at physical labor or with a machine to make a living for himself and his family.

I'm in the process of taking this collared shirt and cuff-link piece of s*** back to the store and I'm going to get me something that works for people who actually 'labor' and/or do physical work for a living.

Again, more at the link.

Seems to me that Mr. James' point applies equally well to touchscreens in cars. Many drivers are hard-working men, with the same sort of damage to their hands as Mr. James. Others will be wearing gloves, particularly in cold weather. How are such people supposed to use touchscreen controls - particularly when they can't even safely take their eyes off the road to look at them?

Methinks our automakers had better rethink this one - quickly . . .



Anonymous said...

It's the age-old case of "Toys for the Boys" syndrome.

Infantile people love lights flashing in multi-colors and sexy touch screens.

My daughter (teenaged) is one of these infant-minded people. She gets really angry when I plant the TV remote on top of the set and walk across the room to change the channel. She can't imagine a world without remote channel changers. She has an iIPhone, iPod etc. I don't have a mobile/cellphone. Because i don't need to be connected. I'm not that insecure that I need to text (don't know how) everyone and anyone to tell them I just went to the toilet and now I feel free from all those nasty toxins that were evacuated from my bowels.

I'll take knobs (rheostats) and toggle switches every time!

Ritchie said...

I'll retrofit. You just see if I don't. I've done it before, I'll do it again. I do wire, switches, and relays. I have no problem with knife switches on the dashboard. You see a 64 Nova trailing sparks down the road, make a hole.

Anonymous said...

These type of folks are from flyover zones and really dont matter........

Anonymous said...

My father detests that same feature in his three-year-old Toyota. The thermostat and radio controls are both giant knobs. The display screen will lock out the information he is interested in if he does not get the oil changed as soon as a multiple of 3000 crosses the odometer. The read-window-defrost and windshield defrost are nearly identical icons on side-by-side push-buttons. He much prefers the controls in my plain vanilla knob and lever pick-up truck. Which is two years younger than his car. Apparently working folks get real controls.


Anonymous said...

I don't see how touchscreens and electronics are supposed to last in cars with extreme environments. Like, say, 120+ F temps in Vegas and -60F in North Dakota.

Furthermore, the whole "can't do shit by touch anymore" thing bothers me, too - it's the same reason why I really, really don't want to get an MP3 player with a touchscreen...can't do anything without having to physically take it out of my pocket and look at it.

skreidle said...

I do agree with the automotive interfaces -- hell, I prefer the clicky knob on my truck's radio tuner to the car's rocker switch, because I can feel the changes from one freq to the next on the knob's detentes -- but there are a couple of workarounds (and misunderstandings) re: touchscreen phones.

1) They have nothing to do with heat -- it's capacitive, not heat- or pressure-sensitive, which generally means bare skin. That said, there are several companies that sell gloves with metallic thread incorporated into the index finger and thumb tip, which allow you to use the screen with gloves on. (For those not wishing to purchase new gloves, you can buy metallic thread and stitch a bit into your own, though I'm not sure how feasible that'd be with chainsaw-safe leather gloves. Should be, though -- just need leather needles.

2) There are still plenty of simple phones available with real buttons, and some smartphones (a few BlackBerry models come to mind, like the Curve) have hard buttons for answer and hangup.

Anonymous said...

My worry is the durability of the touchscreen. Using a cellphone or iPad a few hours, for a couple of years till the next one comes out is one thing, but which of these cars is going to be lasting 10 or twenty years? Will there have to be constant replacement of the screens or are we just supposed to go get a new car in this throw-away society.

Phone wise I stick with a JCB tradesman. It has big buttons (for my delicate booger-hooks), a loud ringtone (so I can hear it in the middle of a herd of cows) and is waterproof (for when I drop it in the only puddle for three miles or something else vaguely squishy, which seems to happen regularly - accidentally, honest).

What do I know, I may be a geek and a technophile but I'm just a grumpy old man who likes to be able to fix things himself.

Now get off my lawn.

Anonymous said...

The last 25 years of my life has been spent writing software for automotive embedded systems (abs, airbag controls, engine controllers, Bluetooth hands free and now rear camera displays). Knowing what I know about how automotive software is developed I shudder to think where this is going. The goal is always to cost-reduce the system, leading to more complex software developed by companies that usually don`t want to pay for it. Maybe I`m just being cynical...but I work with too many engineers who develop software who don`t know a damn thing about how to do it right.