October 26, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Help! I can't program my car

Onboard computers in modern cars can save time and provide instant access to navigation, entertainment, driving assistance and even ergonomic comfort.

But that instant gratification of having "automatic everything" may require an initial level of patience previously reserved for setting up personal computers and pesky VCRs.

So how long exactly should it take to configure one of these new car computers? For one recent buyer, it's been 18 hours and counting.

While he's no expert in cars, technology analyst Dan Olds is at the tech-savvy end of the car owner spectrum. He recently bought an Infiniti G35. Not including the hour orientation with an Infiniti representative, Olds has so far spent 18 hours reading, programming, syncing, uploading, downloading and testing out everything necessary to make the most of his car's features.

"Given how much time I've devoted to the technical aspects of this car, I'm concerned about sounding either stupid because it's taken so much time or ultra-nerdy because I've spent so much time doing this," said Olds.

Olds may not be the average car owner, but he's not doing anything out of the ordinary to set up his new car. His time commitment may be closer to the norm, as car computers and their functions trickle down from luxury models to budget-priced cars in the future.

Carnegie Mellon MOVE system

It's part of a larger trend toward more automation embedded in all cars.

"I'm not complaining. This is all really cool stuff once you get it set up. It has an integrated hard drive, rear-view camera...But the thing is, I've been in tech for 15 years. For your average car owner it's going to be a brave new world," said Olds.

Even weeks later, he and his wife are still discovering minor features they didn't know they had. For instance, his Infinity includes an elevation reader that works through a GPS system to report height above sea level.

Of course, most car owners are unlikely to match Olds and his stamina when it comes to new car setup. For instance, when it comes to rentals cars, it seems even the savviest computer engineer doesn't want to be bothered with a car that offers too many high-tech extras.

Dan Siewiorek, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says that after a fellow car renter passed on a Toyota Prius in favor of a "normal car," he and his wife decided to try it out.

However, after a frustrating few minutes spent fiddling with the Prius and its interactive dashboard in order to find the air conditioning controls, the couple returned it to the rental agency for a standard model.

"It wasn't a learning curve issue, but that driving in a strange place, we just thought it wouldn't be safe," said Siewiorek.

Siewiorek had already had one uncomfortable experience in which he couldn't find the defroster in another new-model rental car while driving in San Francisco with no place to pull over. "If your eyes are off the road for a second or two you start drifting and get into serious trouble. I think people have to have something that's very easy and intuitive to use. Particularly when you have to react in traffic, you have to make quick decisions," he said.

Automakers say they realize that adding all this additional automation requires new ways to help people use it. What seems like common sense to the engineers that design car automation systems may not be intuitive to the average driver, said Siewiorek.

Many automakers are trying out voice commands and audio signals. Some are offering dials that create muscle memory where eventually the driver should remember that down-and-to-the-left does one thing and a quarter-turn-to-the-right another. Others are putting the computer screen high on the dash for better visibility.

CONTINUED: Is there a better way?…
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Too Hard
It started when mfg's incorporated a clock that couldn't be set without reading the manual. How ludicrous is that?

And it's gotten ridiculous. I had to program a new key to work in my 07 Jeep JK and could not get it to work. Turns out that the 06 keys, which the locksmith provided, won't work. However, the manual also gave out incorrect instructions which complicated matters that much more. Having to swap keys, listen for certain blinking lights and hear certain beeps, all of which is incorrectly described in the manual, using a key that looks identical but is, in fact different (the 07 JK uses the 06 Commander key!), then to finally stand on my head for five seconds (okay, I made that part up), was ridiculous.

Right now, cars are where computers were at 25 years ago. Let's hope that they get better a lot faster because a crash with a computer is a lot less of a problem than one with a car!

--mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Fun Part Will Be...
After you've spent 18 hours setting up your car and then you have some sort of "event" that causes all your custom setting to go *poof* and you have to spend another 18 hours getting your car all set back up again.

Just had something similar happen with my GPS: after a firmware/map upgrade, the touch screen decided the numbers and letters on the left side of the screen didn't need to be usable. Called tech support, they suggested a "reset" procedured that ended up wiping out a year's worth of collected addresses (and still didn't fix the problem).

Yeah... Technology's great, sometimes. :p
Posted by ferricoxide (1125 comments )
Reply Link Flag
UI is the key...
Since most engineers focus on the hard stuff, actually designing an interface to it looses attention. If its not easy to use, the feature is useless.
Posted by umbrae (1073 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Disconnect battery to Reboot.
i had a highly customized Honda Civic with a security feature that allowed a thief to drive about a half mile before disabling the engine.

If it were accidentally started with a different key than unlocked the doors, it would fall into this mode.

The only cure was to reboot, accomplished by disconnecting the battery for a few seconds.

Just for the record, it was NOT necessary to "close all windows" first.
Posted by disco-legend-zeke (448 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Mr. Jobs......Oppertunity is knocking.
It's not that I love Apple it's just they seem to be the only Company that understands how to simplify the complex without sucking the functionality out the device.
Posted by JCarlson27 (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
feature creep
This is just a symptom of feature bloat. I drive a Jetta and recently got a new one as a loaner while mine was undergoing maintenance. The new one turned me off of Jetta's. I couldn't turn on the radio without clicking OKAY on a touchscreen 3 times. I don't want to have to boot my car up or sign in or agree to an EULA everytime I need to drive to the store. I don't want these features. I don't want the hassle. I don't want the embedded expense. Even if you don't get the options, your purchase is subsidizing the availability of them. These car companies are trying to lure customers with shiny toys and siily features that have nothing to do with the true quality of the car. If they really want a firm share of the market, they should make cars of high quality at low cost and leave all this other crap to the aftermarket. In fact, if there was a car that was purpose built to readily accept aftermarket features (electronics), that would have an appeal to me.
Posted by baike (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Honda is another one that is nuts. It will mishear you when you
give it a verbal command to adjust fan, or airconditioning, or
temp and all of a sudden the radio kicks on!!! So you almost
need a cheat card to have the commands in front of you. It is
worse than remembering all the AT commands for the modem in
the early days, not to mention the dip switch settings. It's the
same disaster.

I miss my 1972 with GLASS tube fuses (8 of them!) and an old
school AM radio. Hardly anything could go wrong that you
couldn't figure out with your eyes or a simple $10 meter if it was
a faulty wire, possibly the generator went bad (had that happen).

Now it's 6 computers in a car, DVD deck under the passanger
seat for the maps, GPS (guess what, that means YOU can be
tracked!) Too much electrical add-ons.
Posted by Travis Ernst (170 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How many computers do I need to drive to work?
How many do I need to pay for?
When my car breaks, how do I describe the symptom?
Recently my MINI felt like it was running at half power.
I thought "limp home" or "safe mode".
On my second trip for repair the dealer gave me a loaner MINI with even more computers in it that I had to try to figure out just to use the radio and heater.
Now we need computerized seat, wheel, and mirror adjustment memory for six drivers.
Self adjusting headlight computers.
A computer that shuts off the dome light while I'm still in the car.
The best is a computer that tells the dealer that you have been racing and possibly voids your warranty
Thank you Nissan.
Posted by bennettpb (1 comment )
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