Last night on Top Gear, one of the segments involved a review of some fancy European car or another, I forget what kind. It’s not really important; I just watch the review segments of Top Gear to hear Jeremy Clarkson be snarky and because they’re in between the really fun parts of the show. What’s important for our purposes today is that the car in question had umpteen zillion gadgets and geegaws and electronic whatchamacallits, including a central computer brain controlled with a big chrome knob on the center console, about where the toggle switches for the machine guns were in the Aston Martin in Goldfinger.
That got me to thinking about how much more fiddly and sophisticated cars have gotten in the last 20 years or so, and how little they really changed in the 20 or so years before that, comparatively speaking.
Take even the basic secondary controls in your average passenger car. If you were to compare, say, a Chevrolet Impala from the mid-1960s and one from the mid-1980s, the controls not directly relating to the control of the car would be pretty much the same. You’d have the two-position pull-out knob for the headlights in the lower left corner of the dash, and right next to it the three-position toggle switch for the windshield wipers. Over on the right-hand side, you’d have vents with a clock in between them, then the two slide levers to control the heater below them, then the radio below that. The radio would have a knob at one side to turn it on and adjust the volume, and one on the other side to control the tuning, and a row of buttons for preset stations underneath the bit that shows you what frequency you’re tuned to. On the left side of the steering column, the lever that controls the directional signals. On the right side, the thing you pull out to turn on the hazard flashers. The button that turns the high beams on and off would be down on the floor.
And that would pretty much be it. Oh, sure, you might have a slightly fancier model, especially in the ’80s, that might have air conditioning (three sliders on the heater control panel instead of two), a cassette player (same radio, except with a slot for a cassette and a couple of controls related to its use), maybe even cruise control (some more fiddly bits attached to the directional signal control). If you really splashed out on it you might even have a digital clock in the newer one, and possibly even a little twisty bit on the directional control to set the delay on your fancy new intermittent windshield wipers. But even if you had all the options, everything would be in pretty much the same place it’d always been in. In high school I had a 1989 Camaro; all its controls were in the same places, with the same markings, controlling the same things as the ones in our 1977 Caprice.
Contrast that with my father’s current Impala, a 2004 model, and it’s like the newer car was designed on a different planet than the older ones. The radio and heater controls are in about the same place as before, but they’re laid out entirely differently, and everything else is utterly in the wrong place. The headlight controls are on the turn signal lever, for God’s sake.
Mind you, from a foreign car I’d expect that kind of thing – foreign cars have always had their own interesting ways of doing things, it’s part of the game. I’ve driven a Saab for many years now and have gotten accustomed to its quirks, though my father is still baffled that a car with the ignition switch on the floor even works. (“What keeps it from just getting all full of dirt?” I don’t know. Swedish engineering.) He recently bought a Honda Pilot and has been semi-cheerfully confused by its controls ever since. Last weekend he remarked that one of them – the headlight control, I think – works exactly backward from the way it works in his other car.
These vehicles all pale in comparison, though, to one my mother briefly had a couple years ago. And talk about your jumps in complexity! See, until recently, Mom had a ’94 Land Rover Discovery. This was a deeply basic vehicle. The only control it had that was at all complicated was the lever for activating and deactivating differential lock. We never did figure out how to work that (and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it didn’t actually work). At one point, it had to go into the shop for some repairs, and the dealership provided her with a loaner. It was the same model – a Discovery – but about ten years newer.
The thing was like some kind of spacecraft. Everything on the dash was different, and in most cases not immediately recognizable. The whole interior was black plastic, carbon fiber, and chrome, a far cry from the homey beige and brown tones of Mom’s old Rover, and the controls were all marked with puzzling little icons. These were probably intended to be some kind of pan-lingual code, as obvious to, say, Malaysians as they were to English people. If that’s the case, I can only assume that they don’t make any sense to Malaysians either, because we found them entirely baffling. I recall guessing that one button jammed television reception in the vehicle’s immediate vicinity, while another appeared to involve bacon.
The best of the lot, though, was a chrome knob on the center console, about where the mysterious diff lock lever was in the older Rover. If that lever was mysterious, the knob in the Space Rover (as I mentally dubbed the newer one) was like some unfathomable artifact of an ancient and clever civilization. It had four icons spaced evenly around it, none of them immediately decipherable (I eventually did figure out that one of them depicted a tiny cartoon Rover with one of its wheels up on a large rock), and also four buttons arranged in a little rectangle around it.
We were sitting in the drive-thru lane at the local McDonald’s, waiting our turn, when I started playing with the Mystery Knob. To my delight and Mom’s dismay, it turned out to be connected to what I can only describe as the first factory-standard vato suspension system I’d ever seen. It became clear that the Mystery Knob adjusted the Rover’s suspension for various pre-programmed conditions. That made the one whose icon I’d figured out suddenly make sense; apparently it set the Rover up for the task of climbing over large rocks.
I had fun with this for a bit, making the Rover lift and settle and generally do a little dance as I switched from one preset to another. As I did, the onboard computer would put up a brief note explaining what each mode was for on the marquee-like display panel the Rover sported where you would expect to find the odometer on a dash designed on Earth. Once she noticed it was doing so, Mom switched from demanding to know what the hell I was doing to calling out the different modes in a tone of rising alarm.
“Snow! Rock crawl! Mud ruts! Rock crawl! Mud ruts! Mud ruts!”
Even better, a little more experimentation showed that the four chrome buttons each controlled the position of an individual wheel. This made it possible to, for instance, jack the back wheels up as high as they would go and drop the front wheels to their lowest extreme, giving the Rover a rakish Speed Buggy stance. Or position the left front and right rear wheels in the middle, the left rear at full height, and the right front at minimum, which would make the vehicle adopt a sort of R. Crumb posture. I’m sure the other people in line at the drive-thru were entirely baffled by the evolutions the Rover was going through. I know the woman working the drive-thru window was, since by the time we got to the window I had all four corners jacked up as high as possible, so that Mom’s window was entirely above the drive-thru. No problem – just let the left side down a bit!
The onboard computer didn’t like this much either. Whenever there was a left-right imbalance, for instance, it would huffily inform us that VEHICLE WILL BE UNSTABLE ON DRY PAVEMENT. Still, I was impressed that it would let me set such utterly unsound configurations in the first place. I guess the designer of the suspension control system followed the old UNIX principle – “It doesn’t stop you from doing stupid things because that would stop you from doing clever things.” (A refreshing change from the usual idiot-proofing car designers are so into these days.)
Mom didn’t trust the Space Rover much after that – though I eventually worked out how to put it back into a normal, neutral stance, she spent the rest of the loan period in fear that she would accidentally bump the Mystery Knob into Mud Ruts mode and be unable to get it switched back. God only knows what she’d make of one of those fancy-pants new Mercedes models with the larger version of the Mystery Knob that controls every computerized function imaginable.
For his part, my father is deeply suspicious of all the gadgets packed into his new Pilot. Understand, this is a man who, when I was a kid, wouldn’t buy a car that had power windows or air conditioning because “that’s just another thing to frig up.” To this day, though he’s become too accustomed to AC to do without it, he insists that he would buy cars with hand-cranked windows if they were still available, just to avoid the inconvenience when the electric ones inevitably break down. (Note: This has never happened on any car so equipped that he has owned, which is pretty much all of them in the last 15 years or so.) He’s starting to come around, though. He eschewed the version of the Pilot equipped with a satellite navigation system because “we’ll never use that,” then became so enamored of the portable one I brought along to help us on a trip to Massachusetts General Hospital a few months ago that he’s since bought his own.
I’m so proud. At this rate, I’ll have him just about ready to get an ATM card by the time he goes to the nursing home.
I don’t know as I’ll ever convince my mother of the usefulness of Mud Ruts mode, though.
Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.