x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Air Bag: Are cars' electronic systems too complex?

To say we need our wits about us when driving here is the understatement of the century. Yet it appears that car manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the actual task of driving.

At Motoring we now have a self-imposed embargo about registering our dismay at the standards of driving here but I'm going to break it, so bear with me. A couple of weeks ago I was driving home from Abu Dhabi to Dubai on the E11. It was late afternoon and the traffic, although extremely heavy, was moving at a steady 140kph - nothing unusual about that. I've become accustomed to keeping my eyes peeled for lunacy on the part of other road users, as you might expect, but what I saw that afternoon still has me reeling in horror.

A large Lexus pulled alongside me with a gentleman, who looked to be in his sixties, behind the wheel. My speed was reading 140 and he was gently easing past me without his seat belt on. No surprise there, you might think, but he had on his lap a young girl - I assume his granddaughter - whom he was letting take care of steering duties - at more than 140kph.

It terrifies me that I have to share road space with drivers who blatantly ignore every single rule in the book. To say we need our wits about us when driving here is the understatement of the century.

Yet it appears that car manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the actual task of driving. How so? Well, the UK's consumer protection organisation, Which?, recently published its findings regarding in-car technology and they weren't exactly gushing with praise about the systems we find in our cars these days. "We found that the sheer number of ways to carry out simple tasks in the cars was baffling, and crying out to be simplified," said the Which? Car editor, Richard Headland.

He's right. As new buyers get ever more demanding when it comes to interior appointments, the controls for all the tech we now expect in even the most basic cars is getting more and more complicated to use. Take my own relatively simple car as an example. I counted no fewer than 76 different buttons, rotary dials and other controls all supposedly there to assist me - the driver - with the job in hand. Fortunately, I rarely need to adjust any of them, but to anyone unfamiliar with the Scirocco's dashboard layout it could be incredibly confusing.

More luxurious cars, such as BMWs for instance, might have fewer buttons and switches on hand, but the joystick controls needed to navigate your way around the onboard infotainment systems are nothing if not confusing. To quote the Which? article, "key functions that you need to access every day need dedicated buttons (radio station/CD track selection, air circulation and heating controls), rather than being buried in on-screen menu systems". Maybe Volkswagen got it right the first time.

Manufacturers could do worse than turn to technology giant Apple when it comes to designing the next wave of car interiors. The original iPod MP3 player was a modern classic, allowing users to simply navigate through myriad functions using just a touch-sensitive scroll wheel and a central button. After an hour or so, you could shut your eyes and still be able to use it because its design was perfectly intuitive.

Concentrating on the road ahead, and on what your car is doing, shouldn't be interfered with by gadgetry, no matter how cool it looks. We're surrounded by other drivers who evidently couldn't care less whether they or the rest of us make it home alive - we need to be more alert than ever. Perhaps the iCar wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.