Diatribe: ‘Smart’ steering wheels subject drivers to a ‘thumb tax’
By AL VINIKOUR For Sun-Times Media January 8, 2013 2:35PM
One of the better ideas in the auto industry has been the advent of what I refer to as “intelligent steering wheels.” These are steering wheels with controls for the audio system, cruise control, vehicle information, etc.
The concept is to put needed adjustments to the aforementioned goodies in the hands of the driver. This means the driver doesn’t have to go on a treasure hunt to find them somewhere else in the vehicle cockpit and risk taking his or her eyes off the road. It’s supposed to be a safety device and for the most part it is.
However, I often wonder just who does the ergonomic testing during the design and manufacturing process. My thoughts turn to one of several suspects: Capt. Hook, the one-armed man from “The Fugitive” or some poor guy who lost his thumb through some tragic mishap. And just what would make me think such nefarious thoughts? It’s when I’m driving along, listening to a talk radio station and all of a sudden, in the middle of a turn, I unknowingly hit the mode button and the next thing I know I’m listening to Cee Lo Green or some pastor in Connecticut.
Trust me when I tell you that I did not voluntarily make that switch; the positioning of the steering wheel control knob caused it. I’ve also been driving down the highway on cruise control, thinking that all’s right with my world when all of a sudden, in the process of switching radio stations, my vehicle takes a leap forward to the tune of another 35 miles per hour or it decreases the speed by the same amount and causes me to rely on the kindness of my seat belt to hold me upright instead.
This tells me that some design engineer is not doing his or her job when it comes to the proper height and positioning of the control mechanism. I often wonder just how it’s possible that such a flaw isn’t noticed during the development process. Several theories come to mind. The first is similar to the demise of Northwest Airlines Flight 255 where the crew was interrupted during the preflight checklist and missed a key item that eventually caused the aircraft to crash, killing everyone on board except a toddler. Maybe during the testing of the radio control on the left side of the steering wheel, the engineer’s buddy came by and offered to buy lunch. By the time he had eaten and returned to his workbench, he probably forgot where he was in the cycle and eliminated the positioning step and went on to the next page.
Or perhaps the design was good, but in the manufacturing process it was caught up in a labor dispute caused by an impending union contract negotiation. The workers may have clandestinely put an extra shim in the activator, causing the button to sit up just high enough where it would be brushed continuously by unsuspecting drivers. Sort of like the situation at American Airlines where there was a labor dispute and all of a sudden some of the aircraft had entire rows of seats come loose from their runners and slide down the aisle while the aircraft were in flight.
So on behalf of the majority of us who are all thumbs, I’m asking designers to be more careful in what they design and build. As the saying goes, “Be the labor great or small. Do it right or not at all.”
Al Vinikour is a Midwest-based freelance auto writer. Proving a mind is a “terrible thing to use” he sometimes sits in traffic and ponders about things — generally auto-related — that make him mad. Believing the “pen is mightier than the sword” (and generally results in a whole lot less jail time), he vents his anger through a word processor and produces the Driver’s Side Diatribe column. Email him at email@example.com.
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