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Dashboards that distract Part 1.

May 3, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
After getting The Boss her first new car in 20 years last summer, and with the Civic being the first truly modern car with some electronic doodahs in it, we were amazed.

In this little bright iPad like screen (about 5 inches diagonal), we can track all kinds of cool data, including the average fuel mileage Mr. Sulu obtains. (Regularly get 40 mpg on trips. Take that, Hyundai!)

Honda gets slammed a bit by the car magazines for having this bi-level dash with a huge lighted tachometer down low, and an upper tier that has a huge digital speedometer and a digital fuel gauge and instant mileage meter, done with bar graphs. It’s all very starship like, to me, coming from 34 years of driving cars with dimly lit gauges with needles and printed numbers. I have no idea what the auto mag guys problems are, but I guess if you drive Ferraris as part of your paid job, a mere Civic looks like amateur hour. Excuuuuse me, the old PT Cruiser driver!

But after having Mr. Sulu in service for awhile, both The Boss and The Drummer noted an alarming thing: Average fuel mileage displays combined with instant fuel mileage bar graphs (my son’s are on the dash of his Mitsubishi Outlander) are distracting. It becomes a video game, driving with one eye on the mile-o-meter and one on the road, trying to beat Mr. Gasoline Tank at his wallet-draining scheme. I have to admit, I try to push Mr. Sulu over 40 mpg every time I drive the little guy, and it is fun. And a little distracting, even with the display up in my line of sight, right at the top of the dashboard at the base of the windshield.

And that got me to thinking that these dashboards are both pretty simple compared with what I’ve seen at the auto show in cars that might as well be made of unobtanium for me, the Cadillacs and Lincolns and Audis of the world, where touchscreens and computer-mouse-like pointer systems control everything from the radio to the air conditioner to the temperature of the coffee cup in the center armrest.

I want to change the station, I hit a big button on the dash in Enrico. I want the now ineffective old air conditioning on, I turn a big knob and then swear because nothing but dust and musty warm air come out of the dash vents. That causes me to push a big switch above my head to open the sunroof.

Sorry, Enrico the Cruiser, but you were designed retro and you might as well be a Model-T in terms of your driver-car information interface -- err, heater and radio controls. If a basic cool dashboard in a modern car provides a video-game like distraction, what about all those glow-winkie electronic zoot suits the swells are driving now? And what happens as that stuff makes its way into stuff we non-swells can afford?

I mean, I love the Fiat 500 and really would replace Enrico with a true Italian, but that one little instrument pod probably takes some getting used to. And they’re putting a touch-screen radio into the little Chevy Spark.

The answer is, something is happening as cars get more computer-like on the dashboards, and the folks at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have promulgated some advisory concepts to the automakers about distractions designed into cars.

Stay tuned next week as I delve into the 200-plus pages of government gobbledegook that points the way to the starship Cadillacs and LIncolns and Chevy Sparks of the future.


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