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Automotive Electronics: Do We Really Need All This Stuff?

The desire to link smartphones to dashboard head units is becoming commonplace.  (Photo courtesy of Nokia, Car Connectivity Consortium)
The desire to link smartphones to dashboard head units is becoming commonplace.
(Photo courtesy of Nokia, Car Connectivity Consortium)

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The Gizmonic Man
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Do We Really Need All This Stuff?
The Gizmonic Man   12/1/2011 11:26:34 PM
As an industrial designer with experience in and appreciation for design engineering, I'm of two minds about this subject. As previous posters have pointed out, the advances in safety and engine management/fuel economy have been truly incredible over the last 20 years or so. ABS, airbags, fuel injection, variable valve timing, traction control--pretty good stuff. However, the yang to this yin has got to be the ridiculous increase in unneeded complexity in everything from the basic user interface between the driver and the car's subsystems, to the number of gadgets, video screens, joysticks and GUIs, web-enabled items--the list goes on and on. The basic driving experience now seems subsumed by all the stuff that drivers can do while (poorly) driving their new car.

And the resulting, almost logarithmic increase in the complexity of the car and its associated subsystems makes a simple trip to the dealership for an oil change or the replacement of something as simple as a power window motor something to dread for car buyers of the last decade. NASA learned this the hard way with the Space Shuttle--the more stuff you pack into a vehicle, the greater chance that something will go wrong with something--often while it's just sitting there, not even orbiting in space. And, like the Space Shuttle, just getting to the thing that's busted is often an exercise in frustration, time, and expen$e for today's car buyers.

I was horrified by an Acura commercial a couple of years ago, which showed a driver dealing with activities one would normally do in an office, as well as watching video, emailing, Web surfing--everything but driving. And horror stories like ones I've heard from friends--(the replacement Volvo power window motor that would't work until the main computer was reinitialized to accept it, the $600 airbag chip in the passenger seat)--have convinced me to hold onto my current car (a 1985 Toyota Supra) until there are no more parts for it anywhere in the world.

I'm by no means a Luddite--I'm an early adopter in many areas of technology--but one of them is not new automotive ownership. My HVAC controls are run by levers, not servos. My headlights cost $10 at Pep Boys. My steering wheel has a horn in the middle, not the radio controls. I have no ABS or air bags, but I'm still here. Then again, I also have no in-car video/Web-enabled/Email/YouTube entertainment system to distract me, so maybe I'm more focused on driving the damn car, like avoiding the people wobbling from side to side, fake-braking, or slowing down in front of me to read/send a text on their phone. Appropriate technology for the application--driving to me doesn't mean I have to check what Kim Kardashian is doing right now. Of course, your mileage (and interests) may vary--I speak only of my preferences--but it seems a bit silly to be checking my emails at 70 MPH (or more likely 2 MPH) on the 101.

Unfortunately, to get entry to the advanced safety and fuel economy of today's cars, it's a deal with the devil--you have to take ownership of a LOT of krep that is going to go south in the next few years--and some of it may disable some important functionality of the car when it does, like the touchscreen lifespan discussion earlier in this thread. There isn't any easy answer, as the car companies are primarily marketing driven, and the general response to questions in focus groups about new and zippy features in today's cars seems to be "Yes, more, please!"

I don't know how it's going to ultimately turn out, but I'm not very hopeful in the short term--and I'm not buying any new cars anytime soon. I'll have to see if I can get a LUDDITE plate for my Supra.

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Re: Distracted Driving
jmiller   11/27/2011 8:31:01 PM
Hopefully, future legislation will target distracted drivers and increase the penalties for accidents caused by distracted drivers.  As much as I hate to say it, there may need to be more regulation on car makers and what they allow or what they set their vehicles up to accept. 

I don't think too many people would by a car that they couldn't make a call in while it is in drive but wouldn't that drastically cut down on the number of accidents caused by distracted driving.

Charles Murray
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Re: Distracted Driving
Charles Murray   11/16/2011 10:03:48 PM
To jmiller: I definitely agree with you. The distracted driving laws don't keep up with the reality and the efforts by automakers seem to ignore the fact that people will continue to use their iPods and other such deveices in the front seat.

William K.
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Automotive electronids-who wants it?
William K.   11/10/2011 7:17:18 PM
I wonder who is it who really wants all of these things. Instinct tells me that it all comes from the marketing department and a group of 16 year old boys. In summary, it does not look like there are any rational beings involved with the decisions as to what gets included in the new cars. I can say that absolutely it is nobody who thinks like me.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Cost and safety are the factors I weigh...
TJ McDermott   11/9/2011 3:14:43 PM
In that time, cars also advanced, just differently.  MUCH better safety features (they can't be lumped in with the entertainment options we've been discussing here).  Much better longevity as well (in general).   Emissions are way down too.

People wanted more room - house size grew in the time span.

People wanted more comfort - cars got power windows / locks and AC in every car in that time.


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Re: Cost and safety are the factors I weigh...
dgtech   11/9/2011 2:59:53 PM
Yes, so I had thought of the whole 'inflation factor' over 35 years, but the average size of a house in 1976 vs 2011 has changed considerably - not so much with a car. In fact they have gotten smaller, for the most part. Realize a house today has 2, 3, or 4 bathrooms, eat-in kitchen (plus dinning room), living room (plus family room), guest bedroom, den, laundry room, sunroom,  2 or 3 car garage,...   Makes me wonder when the 'auto-bubble' is going to pop?

TJ McDermott
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Re: Cost and safety are the factors I weigh...
TJ McDermott   11/8/2011 5:04:58 PM

I agree with you, but I think your analogy is invalid.

Median cost of a new house in 1976 was about $43,000.

Median cost of a new house in 2011 looks to be about $240,000.

(data from US Census).

Average cost of a new car in 1976 was about $5,500

Average cost of a new car in 2010 (sorry, best I could do) was about $29,200.  Let's just pretend it's 2011 cost.

House costs are 5.58 times more expensive compared to 35 years ago.

Car costs are 5.3 times more expensive than 35 years ago.

Close enough to call it equal, with the rough numbers I could get.

You can make the comparison only if you could transport your 2011 car back in time to 1976.

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Cost and safety are the factors I weigh...
dgtech   11/8/2011 4:42:10 PM
The only justification for these devices (given the added cost) is safety! The idea that a new automobile costs about what I paid for my 15 yr. old 1100 sq. ft. brick house, 35 years ago, makes little sense to me. Convenience and comfort are nice, but not worth the price.

My first car was a 1970 Chevelle which cost $3000. At that time A/C and an automatic transmission were great...

Oh, by the way, I'm not 'anti-technology'. I have been employed as a technologist for a high-tech industrial manufacturing company for those same 35 years. I grew up on a farm and went to a one room country school house with no running water, and today I enjoy packpacking.

Just a different perspective.

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too many fluffy features....
terryatsbe   11/8/2011 3:38:48 PM
I sadly had to replace my beloved '98 Saturn SL2, a fender bender resulted in damage far above the value of the car.  I bought a Chevy Cruze ECO.

I bought it, I'll make do. But the only thing I like better about it is the fuel economy, and the Saturn did very well at that.

Hey, I'm an electrical engineer, and I understand neat electronics.  But this thing has buttons and switches all over the place.  Took me too long to figure out how to get my favorite AM radio station.!  Cars should be simple enough to sit in, turn on, and go.  Shouldn't have to learn how to play them like a piano.  I didn't want something where I feel like I'm sitting inside an entertainment center.... but that's what I bought.

Saturn:  Crank windows were just fine.  The radio had two knobs.  Tuning and volume, and I could find them without taking eyes off the road.  Comfortable seat, shift lever in just the right place, perfectly spaced gears, could hear the engine without being obnoxious.  Good visibility,  best car I ever owned.

Cruise:  Can't push start it, goes into "I'm stolen mode".  Can't hear the engine, have to use tach to shift. That's a distraction. Been driving only std. shift cars since the 60's.  Jeese, even the inside lights slowly fade out.  I'd think a tremendous amount of cost could be saved.  And GM could include at least a compact spare tire.  Wide window posts and big mirrors create two bad blind spots.  Keys that cost $200 to replace. Big! can't keep a spare key in your wallet.  I could go on and on.... but this artical is spot on!!

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missnoitall   10/28/2011 6:15:21 PM
I am ever so found of the 1967 VW beetle I used to own.  Its worse feature was it's 6 volt electrical system (well, they don't do that anymore, do they?...something about I2R...).  My fondest memory was a quirky problem I had following some routine maintenance.  I began to notice that if you kept your foot on the brake pedal and turned off the ignition switch, the car kept running until you released your foot pressure!  Oh, was that ever fun to figure out!  The cause?  Well, my last mainenance work replaced a burned out tail light bulb.  By chance I retraced the effort and discovered that I used a single tab bulb instead of a double tab, dual filament bulb.   The center tab on the bulb shorted across the two tabs in the bracke light socket and delivered six volts from the brake light circuit to the ignition circuit, thus defeating the key switch disconnect function while your foot was on the brake pedal!  In todays cars, this kind of error would blow out more electronics then that 66 bug cost brand new.  Don't you just miss the simplicity of it all?

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