Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: cars (page 3 of 3)

What users do

As you know, I frequently mine the long term road test blog at Edmunds Inside Line for interesting tidbits that relate to design and user experience. Today I ran into a problem at work where people could no longer log into FogBugz because the computer running Windows XP on which it runs had decided that too many people were connected and I was violating the arbitrary rules Microsoft imposes to force you to purchase Windows Server 2003. Here’s the thing — nobody was actually using FogBugz at the time and the problem went away when I rebooted the server.

Then today I read about a complaint that the Edmunds staff have with Subaru’s navigation systems. Subaru disables the controls for navigation systems when the car is moving:

I find it extremely frustrating that some navigation systems, like the one found in our Subaru, will lock out 90% of the menu functions once the vehicle is in motion. Want to program in a new destination? Pull over and stop. Want to change the route from “quickest” to something more scenic? Pull over and stop. What if you’re mired in traffic, late, on a highway with no shoulder, or simply want to keep going? Tough.

And this remains the case whether you have a perfectly capable passenger riding shotgun next to you to press the buttons or not. A passenger can read regular maps while underway, and AAA gives them away to members for free. Tell me why I should pay one or two grand for one of these, again?

So what do users do when confronted with these arbitrary, user-hostile restrictions? They hack around them:

But our 2008 Subaru WRX STI has a hand-operated parking brake handle, a type that is much easier to control. While doing a hand-brake turn while horsing-around on the safe confines of a dry lake, I inadvertently found that pulling up on it doesn’t simply illuminate the brake lamp. Doing so also energizes all of the navigation system menus.

In the end, he winds up jamming his iPod under the parking brake handle so that he can use the navigation system whenever he likes. In the case of our FogBugz server, I’m going to uninstall Windows XP and replace it with some Linux variant as soon as I get a chance.

Used 1984 Ferrari for sale

The 1984 Ferrari 308 that Edmunds has been testing for the past year is for sale. They purchased it for $28,000 and spent $5,000 on repairs over the course of the year. Wonder how much they’ll get for it? Probably not as much as they get for the 2002 BMW M3 that the staffers have been raving about since January.

Push button ignition

This weekend I rented a car that had a push button starter. The first time I heard about push button starters, I thought they were some kind of gimmick, but after driving a car with one for a few days I figured out which problem they were designed to solve.

Back in the day, you had your car key. (Or if you drove a General Motors car, you had at least two car keys. One for the doors and one for the ignition. How dumb is that?) Eventually, though, pretty much every car came with both a key and a key fob used to turn off the car alarm, unlock the doors, and so forth. The push button starter was created to remove one item from your pocket. Since you can’t get rid of the fob, car makers have started getting rid of the ignition key. As long as you have the fob, you can start the car with a button push.

There are two additional advantages to this system beyond eliminating key chain clutter. The first is that you can put your keys back in your pocket as soon as you’ve unlocked the doors. Being a creature of habit, I never remembered to do so and wound up driving with my keys in the cup holder all weekend, but I’m sure I’d adjust before too long if I owned such a car. The other advantage is that the system makes it nearly impossible to lock your keys in the car. Since there’s no key in the ignition, you won’t leave your keys there, and if you use the key fob to lock the doors, it’s guaranteed you’ll have your keys with you when you’re walking away from the car. That’s a nice benefit for the absent-minded.

It’s always interesting to discover that there’s a reasonable rationale for something you originally regarded as a novelty feature.

Links for March 22

  • Exposure: Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris on the photographs from Abu Ghraib in the New Yorker. Morris has a new documentary on Abu Ghraib coming out on April 25 called Standard Operating Procedure. It’s tough to believe that Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush will never go to jail after reading this article.
  • Marginal Revolution: Why have burglaries declined? Globalization has made manufactured goods so cheap that the incentive to steal them has been reduced.
  • Compiler: New Wiki-Style Features Allow Anyone to Edit Google Maps. It’ll be interesting to see how this experiment works out.
  • Edmunds.com: We Test the Tips. Edmunds tested a bunch of “better gas mileage” tips to determine which ones will actually improve your car’s fuel economy. Driving less aggressively seems to offer the biggest bang for the buck.
  • Andrew Brown: The nerd is the enemy of civilisation. ELIZA creator on RMS and his friends at MIT in the 70s.
  • furbo.org: Vote for virtualization. Not allowing virtualization puts OS X behind the times.

An ugly hack

How do auto makers deal with problems where a parts on a car vibrate noisily? In some cases, they just add some weight to the part that vibrates. This is sort of a sneak preview of a post I’m working on about good hacks versus bad hacks, and how to tell them apart. And maybe another post on what a pain it is to lay out HTML forms using semantic markup in a fashion that works in all of the popular browsers.

One of the biggest challenges for software developers, I think, is figuring out which hacks are good, and which hacks are bad. In the meantime, I put adding weight to car parts to keep them from shaking in the same category as rebooting your application server every night to dampen the effects of a memory link in your code. It may be a necessary hack for the short term, but it doesn’t really cut it as a long term solution.

Update: Be sure to read the comments. What seemed to me to be a hack is actually a pretty elegant solution.

Bloatware afflicts the auto industry

I’m a sucker for observing behavior in non-software industries that’s analogous to perceived problems in the software industry. This is from a blog post on the 2008 Honda Accord:

The day an automaker redesigns a midsize family sedan and declares it to be, “Less roomy, less powerful and less luxurious!” is the day that I expect to read a Rolling Stone “Top 50 Albums Of All Time” story and find “Frampton Comes Alive!” in the top 10.

So it’s of little surprise that the redesigned 2008 Honda Accord is indeed roomier, more powerful and more luxurious. But I wonder – how much bigger can it get? Out of curiosity, I compared the size of the new Accord to that of the Toyota Avalon. Houston, we have a problem.

One of the most common complaints about software is that as applications get older, they keep getting bigger. It turns out, the same thing happens to cars. This must be why car models eventually get retired and new models take their place — nobody ever releases an updated model of a car that’s smaller, cheaper, and more economical to drive. New models get a new designation. Indeed, that seems to be what’s happening with Honda:

But if it gets any bigger or heavier on the next redesign, the Accord might as well be Honda’s Avalon, with the Civic taking up the midsize spot and the Fit being the “old Civic.”

I’m glad to see that this behavior on the part of businesses (and even open source projects) is really more a function of consumer psychology than it is of bad behavior in the software industry.

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