Cars are computers

10 Jul

Of course everything was easier before. In the old days.

You flicked the switch, and there weren´t many anyway, and the light came on. Now there may be a switch, or a menu item, or both, or a touch screen, and there are so many functions to control. And the light no longer comes on immediately.

I have recently been driving a new Megane Scenic for a few days. Let me get the actual car out of the way, since that´s a bit like the hardware in a phone: it probably has enough Gigahertz and stuff to run the show regardless of the maker. It´s the user experience that interests us!

The engine must have been the smallest diesel, the 1.5 DCI. Smooth, quiet, economical and a bit overworked.

6-speed manual shift: Quite sloppy and gooey. Better than many Peugeots.  Why no double clutch or modern automatic? (I know they weigh more but they cut consumption).

Steering: it turned the front wheels without exciting anyone, with a 100% artificial weighting, and it was insensitive around the centre.

Suspension: comfort-oriented with the odd heaving motion over large undulations that a German chassis engineer would have ruled as ”verboten”.

Two more notes: for a family-car destined for heavy everyday use and occasional long voyages, why is the tailgate so hard to close, and why is there no thigh-support for the driver?


But these days no-one cares about understeer or gearboxes. It´s all about the size of your touch-screen.


Here it gets interesting, since the car was equipped with, and proudly boasted of, a TFT-display. You could probably download different ”themes” for this, but I stuck with the standard. Very sharp and bright enough, with a digital speedo and analogue rev-counter, it still had some quirks. The most annoying was the purple writing on black background. I am not sure what it said, since I couldn´t read it, given that the contrast was appalling and I chose not to stick my head inside the dash while driving. As luck would have it, I am sure this information was far from vital,  – otherwise I might be writing this from a hospital. Indeed a poor choice of colours.  The writing may have had to do with the cruise control, since the latter displayed its charms in the same area of the screen. For some reason, when you turned the cruise control off with a weird 3-way button low on the dash, you could read (with the colour-related provisos noted above) the water temperature of the under-bonnet diesel-propulsion unit in this same part of the display. A bar chart appeared. No actual temperature was given, even if I am sure the on-board chips received that to one decimal place, but you could tell if the water temperature was on the left of right side of an ungraded scale. However, if you were using the cruise control, this information was concealed. As a consequence – one that may have escaped the French-educated engineers that gave birth to this state of affairs – the driver who wants to know where on a left-to-right bar the water temperature happens to be at a given moment, must deactivate the cruise control in order to get access to this precious information. Most curious, I thought. Most curious.

Thankfully, there is now a convention in the French car industry whereby the right stalk, the one that controls the wipers, has a button on its end (in this case two buttons in the space of one – imagine a single circular flat button cut in two) which cycles through some standard information from the fuel-computer: distance to empty, average speed, average consumption, instant consumption (again in purple coloured bars with no calibration), and so on. I was most pleased to find this, since I feared the information might be hidden at the end of a stress-inducing battle with the fearsome array of buttons on the centre console – looking like a somewhat timid imitation of Audi and BMW´s offerings, with a tiny plasticky rotary switch where Audi would offer milled hi-tensile steel or maybe black marble. I never even dared to venture into this part of the car´s Man Machine Interface. Returning to the stalk, the display cycled through seven or eight standard messages, including the memorable ”no message memorised”. I first tried the lower of the two half-circle buttons, and then curiosity got the better of me and I tried the upper one, half expecting the car to self-destruct or sprout wings – or maybe beans, since there was a funny greenish leaf on the TFT display whenever the car thought my driving was especially likely to save the planet. In the event, it turns out this second button cycles through the exact same information! But in the opposite order. Steve Jobs would not have approved. Two buttons to do one thing? I was almost aghast at this discovery. What´s more, it doubles the cost, the wiring, and the number of items that will one day cease to function properly relative to the baseline (one button). That´s a major risk to have introduced for little gain. Most people will never dare to use the top-half-sliced-disk button anyway, for reasons outlined above.

I then turned on the radio by means of a small slightly sunken rubbery button, and proceeded to turn up the volume on the nicest rotary switch in the car, one with a metally-looking surround. This turned out to change the station instead, but not in any very predictive manner. Turning it produced a short vertical list of stations, some identified by name, some by frequency (incredibly relevant these days, a bit like using IP-adresses to talk about Skype … ”I talked to Mum yesterday on”). Aaaanyway, I never managed to select the station I wanted! You really have to try this button to know what I mean. The relationship between the tactile action (e.g. turn button left), the visual feedback, and the station that resulted, utterly evaded my sun-soaked and airconditioned mind. You may have more luck, but in my 40 years of radio-fiddling, I have never been so utterly confounded. Amazing. It really was. Thankfully, my kids were playing 3 different noisy games on their iDroids, so filling the car with ”music” was the last of my worries.

In the end I did find the volume control, which was a smallish black button not far from where I had focussed my attention. But by then, I had no use for it, which may explain why it was so small. Absolutely tiny, in fact.

I did like the temperature controls for the climate system! They were like toggle-switches, so you give them a nudge up or down to change the setting in half-degree increments. No purple to stump you here, but a clear readout in centigrades! Toggling between ”auto” and ”fast” was also a breeze, both buttons could be used to disengage ”fast” mode! Great, Renault.

Finally, we get to the piece de resistance, the automatic parking brake. It said somewhere it was automatic, but still, there was a button for it. This had an activation delay which was just long enough to make you doubt your sensormotor neurons: did I actually pull that button? Operated by means of a very toggle-like button where the physical shape clearly signals that you can pull or push (rock it); a red light signals that the parking brake is on. As I have already hinted, the delay before the light comes on is so long that you have the time to pull the button twice, and start to wonder if pulling or pushing is the appropriate action, and what exactly ”automatic” means? Another amusing feature is the gap between my expectation of ”automatic” and Renault´s implementation, or should I say aberration. On a few occasions I stopped the car, sat for a few seconds in silence and with zero motion relative to the ground, silently hoping for ”automatic” to manifest itself, and then I opened the door! At this point, the computer barked a ”bong” and a rabid message appeared on the display, in very legible colour – red I think – ”please turn on the parking brake!”. So I concluded that ”automatic” means it decides itself when to tell you off for rubbish parking habits.

I must add in the name of fairness that it turns itself off — automatically. When you engage a gear and release the clutch, it disengages.

So there it is. A modern car is more than a heap of metal and gubbins. It´s a living breathing creature suffused with the logic – or lack thereof- of its creators. So caveat emptor, as they say!

Oh, Renault.


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