James Baggott: How can a simple task on a modern car foil four motoring hacks?

WHEN Apple shipped its first iPhone it was a landmark moment for the mobile market.

Not because it had apps — thousands of them — nor because it could all be controlled using just your finger. No, what really set this communications device apart was its intuitive usability.

So easy was the iPhone to understand, even (some) mothers could send a text, make a phone call and, wait for it, browse the internet — all without being forced to look up instructions first in a fat manual.

Apple visionary Steve Jobs was adamant that his products would ship without instructions. His view was that if it users had to consult a handbook then the whole process was too complicated. This infuriated his team but it made the iPhone the most user-friendly mobile and a worldwide success.

So why then, if Apple could manage it with its first entry into the mobile phone market, have car manufacturers still failed to master the art of intuitive user interfaces? We’ve had a succession of test cars through the Car Dealer gates and they seem to be getting more difficult to use, not easier.

Take the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe I stole the keys to the other weekend. Nice though it was, it was hard to enjoy the brilliant 4.4-litre twin turbo V8, or relax in the sumptuous red-leather interior because my journey was punctuated by infuriating traffic reports from parts of the country I’d never heard of, let alone were anywhere nearby. Working out how to turn it off took — I assumed — a Hadron Collider physician-sized brain.

This meant my average ape-sized cranium failed to work out how to do it. I flicked between the radio screen and its settings on the annoyingly complicated iDrive for, my wife will confirm, several minutes. Nowhere could the disable-annoyingly-shouty-traffic-presenter option be found.

My frustration increased in direct correlation to the number of road closures I heard about in Staines, when I was in Southampton, to the point my better-half turned off the radio — ‘I’d prefer to sit in silence rather than hear you swear at the car every 20 minutes’.

Perplexed after a weekend of tuneless motoring, I challenged three colleagues* to turn off the announcements. Like me, every one failed as they fudged around with the iDrive system.

It wasn’t until Leon stole the keys for the night and I challenged him to turn off the traffic alerts without putting his size 10 boots through the dash, that we got a result. My phone rang 10 minutes after he left: ‘It’s a sodding great big button under ‘Mode’ on the dash!’

A button? A bleeding button? We’d all been lost in the oblivion that is BMW’s ‘improvement’ on human-car interfacing to spot the button on the dash. Every one of us had been convinced it was buried deep in the iDrive’s bowels.

So why did a simple task on a modern car foil four motoring hacks (all equally embarrassed)? Surely technology should be making our lives easier, not more frustrating. Why haven’t decades and billions of pounds spent on R&D, and dozens of brainy scientists analysing our interactions with cars, resulted in things getting easier?

I’m being a little unfair pinning all this on BMW. Most other manufacturers are just as bad. In fact, I find it hard to think of a car that does it perfectly. It seems the more technology car firms pack into their new models the more complicated working it all out becomes. Apparently BMW salesmen go on a week-long course just on iDrive. Doesn’t that sort of show it’s not really any good?

A quick poke around the Car Dealer long-termers shows even the big-selling brands are little better. Our Ford B-Max — brilliant as it is — has a dash with buttons smaller than the office microwave and I don’t have to worry about crashing that into a bus while warming up a meal for one.

Even Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson highlighted the problem on a recent episode — and it was the B-Max’s sister car, the Focus, he labelled as confusing.

Things are slowly improving in some areas. Our Peugeot 208 long-termer has all the controls on an iPad-style touch screen. It’s relatively simple to use but has an annoying habit of crashing — probably something to do with the fact it feels as if it’s powered by Windows 95 on a dial-up internet connection… with a virus.

The sooner voice control for absolutely everything takes over in cars the better. At least then my shouting at the dash might have an effect other than causing my wife to roll her eyeballs…

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