Stuck in the slow lane

Despite all the high profile innovations that car makers love to tell us about, there are still basic faults that have not been addressed.

Car manufacturers love honking their own horn. Every evening’s TV viewing is polluted by the self-congratulatory celebration of their technology and design expertise. Worse, the acronymic pornography of car marketing has entered our collective parlance. ABS, SIPS, MPV, ATV, GPS-Mapping – bring up cars in conversation and otherwise sane individuals start talking like a junior brand manager at Ford.

The manufacturers are pretty smug. It may be a competitive world, but as a group they think they’ve really pushed the art and science of car making to the edge. I reckon they believe their new product design thinking is a couple of steps ahead of the public’s expectations.

A current examination of car designers’ CADish cleverness, the Moving Objects exhibition at the Royal College of Art celebrates the influence of 30 years worth of graduates from the college’s vehicle design course. There’s much for the institution to celebrate, notably the fact that it has become the most prolific British provider of design talent to the world’s car makers.

But forget careers, forget features, forget new-looks and aerodynamics, and forget the top-of-the-range models; how far has the design of popular cars really come? I don’t just mean in terms of speed, safety and reliability, I mean in terms of all-round user-friendliness. Well, not as far as it should, and certainly not so far that the industry and its designers can really be quite so smug. Most of today’s runaround models still fail to meet many of a driver’s most basic needs. For every £25 000 plus model that boasts a global positioning system you can find several new sub-£10 000 models that don’t even give you a drinks holder. And for all the talk of DVD sets and computer games consoles in seat backs, the radios in most new “runarounds” give you more crackling than a pig farmer’s Sunday roast.

Appealing to the nervous materialism of its readers, Sunday newspapers love running features about how tough car security has become, but, again, the design boffins have failed to solve the real problem – lost sleep. Yes, your neighbour’s precious motor may have a device that means it’s tracked everywhere by a semi-retired spy satellite, but it also has a paranoid and shrill alarm system that’s triggered every time something larger than a Ford Transit rumbles past.

If car designers are so bloody clever why haven’t they created an affordable alternative to the electronic caterwauling that’s destroying the night-quiet of our cities, towns and villages? (After all, they created the alarm system in the first place.) Instead, what about using wire-free telecommunications technology to broadcast the alert sound to the driver’s electronic key fob? The lights on the car could do an impersonation of Starlight Express to draw attention to it, the owner of the car would be woken up by a beeping and everyone else could enjoy peaceful slumber. Maybe car designers aren’t clever enough to meet this challenge.

Then there’s fuel gauges. When the indicator is on red does it mean you’re seconds from a spluttering stop or do you have enough juice to get to the Isle of Skye via the scenic route? Why not have a gauge that calculates your average speed and tells you how many miles you can go before you end up on the hard shoulder looking like a plonker?

But many of the design faults of popular cars are even more basic than that. I mean, why does exposure to sunlight make the average steering wheel too hot to handle? And why do fan heaters never have a middle setting between silent-but-ineffective and deafening-but-warm?

For all of the self-satisfied propaganda they shove in front of us, popular car makers as a collective bunch haven’t really achieved as much as they think. Perhaps they should spend less time tinkering with their big ends and take a closer look at what the populace really want around them when they’re driving.

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