Thoughtless Automobile Design

Remote-control door locks. Why is it necessary to blow the horn every time you lock/unlock the vehicle? So you can find your car at the mall? For every one time you need this feature there are going to be multiple times when you park at home, probably not far from your neighbors, perhaps right under someone’s bedroom window in a multi-unit dwelling. The effect is similar to that of the carpooling jerk you remember from college, who showed up in front of your building early every weekday and honked the horn while you were still trying to sleep — except that the remote-control honking happens at all hours of the day and night. Remote door locks should be configured so that the horn is off by default. Better yet, leave the horn off by default and add a quieter mini-horn that is used only for locating the car in parking lots. You don’t need a full-blast traffic horn in the relative quiet of a parking lot.

Always-on headlights. I don’t want the lights to be on all the time when the car is running, even at night. Make that especially at night. There are times when you want to sit in the car and you need to keep the engine running (because it’s hot/cold out). Why should you have to announce your presence to everyone in the area? The light also kills your night vision, which makes stargazing and otherwise keeping an eye on your environment difficult.

Interior lights that don’t shut off immediately when you close the door. Because it goes without saying that lone women getting into their cars in the middle of dark parking lots should be illuminated.

If these features are available, they should be easily configurable via a simple electronic control panel on vehicle dashboards, and the defaults should favor quiet and discretion. Different drivers will have different preferences. For a population as big and diverse as automobile buyers, it’s ridiculous that some manufacturers impose one-size-fits-all settings for features that can easily be made configurable.

27 thoughts on “Thoughtless Automobile Design”

  1. I believe I heard once that Canada was big behind the always-on headlights. Not sure if it’s true, but it does conveniently allow us to pass the blame to them, eh?

  2. Cars honk when you use the remote door lock, because it’s SOP in consumer products to supply some sort of auditory feedback to confirm to the operator that the intended action has actually taken place, if it’s an operation that’s not imediately obvious on it’s own.

    Now, if you’re approaching the car, and it doesn’t make a noise when you unlock it, that’s no big deal, but if you’re leaving the car, and it doesn’t make a noise when you *lock* it, that’s a serious problem. Because you’re not going to know that the battery in your remote control died, until you come back, and you’ve been robbed because you left your car unlocked.

    Headlights are always on, because an insurance company study demonstrated that it reduces accident rates. Check your owner’s manual, you’ll almost certainly find a way to defeat this feature. But making it easy to defeat would have liability implications…

  3. Some cars flash their lights when you lock them. I think that’s adequate feedback. A driver who is cautious can always use the key.

    I’m sure there’s justification for driving with your lights on, though I am skeptical of insurance-companies’ studies. The problem is that there’s also justification for wanting to keep your lights off in some situations (e.g., while making a cell call in a bad area). Drivers are the best judges of which practice is best at a given time, and should have the option to configure their vehicles easily.

  4. My car has several of these sorts of options configurable.

    Don’t want the horn to sound when you use the remote locker (I don’t), just say so.

    Want all doors to unlock when you click (I do), just say so.

    Want your doors to autolock at 15MPH (I do), just say so.

    Want all doors to unlock when you climb out of your previously locked auto (I do – I frequently have to immediately get something out of the back), just say so.

    Somebody is starting to think about this stuff, Jonathan, so there’s hope. And, oh, BTW, its just a run of the mill American auto in the midling price range.

  5. I hate when machines do something I didn’t ask them to do, almost as much as I hate machines that don’t do what I ask. I always lock the car by pushing the button before I close the door, and unlock it with the key. It was not that long ago that I gave up trying to eliminate the power windows on a car I was ordering. If they let me, my next car will have window cranks and a manual transmission. Plus an engine the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a sound system that will kill mice. How’s that for a knuckle-dragging, chromosome-damaged conservative?

  6. Let’s add: a small blower to circulate air and keep temperatures below 150 degrees when the car is parked and the windows are up. Monitor battery charge levels and stop the blower if it’s draining the battery too much; otherwise, let that sucker run.

    I think something has this option, but it should be a lot more common.

  7. David:  That will only help if the outside air is cooler than the air inside the car, which in turn is only true if the car is being heated by radiation rather than conduction.  Ergo, a solar-powered exhaust fan could help this.

    Then again, so could a phase-change film on the glass which turns from transparent to reflective at a certain temperature.

    At one time, my favorite vehicle feature would have been an electric “creep” motor for traversing traffic jams and drive-through lines with the engine off, but that now comes free with every Prius with engine-off A/C thrown in.  If I wanted an über-cool feature now, it would be an HD-based music system with built-in WiFi and the ability to download files to the car from my desktop.  Another would be a plug on the car which powers winter preheaters so it’s defrosted and comfy every morning, and also charges the vehicle’s hybrid traction battery so that I’m using cheap electricity instead of expensive gasoline as much as possible.

  8. I’d agree that these things could be easier to configure, but my guess is that you’re in the minority on 1 and 3, and the manufacturers are setting the defaults to please the majority. Most people want an auditory signal when they lock their doors, so they can be sure it’s locked even if their view of the lights is obstructed. Most people probably also like the interior lights to stay on until the car is started – I know I like having the light on while I situate myself in the driver’s seat.

    Your objection seems to be that the defaults aren’t what you prefer, even though the majority of the market likes it that way, a fairly odd position for a free-market libertarian.

    As for 2, there are some states that have mandated cars be equipped in this manner, so the manufacturers are probably taking the easy way out. I like the default, as it’s the easiest way to address the idiots who drive at dusk by the light of my headlights, refusing to turn on their own.

  9. “they should be easily configurable via a simple electronic control panel on vehicle dashboards”

    Undoubtedly made by the same people who developed the programable V chip. You know the one you have to ask your 12 year old to set cause it is a little challenging for you. “Right Dad, its set so I can’t watch those channels anymore” :)

  10. Fred,

    I am arguing that the default should be different in the case of remote locks, where the designers are ignoring costs imposed on third parties via noxious noise — i.e., driver preference is not the only relevant issue. And I am arguing that the default should be much easier to configure in the case of lights.

  11. A really useful feature would be the ability to turn all four wheels 90 degrees and drive sideways into a parallel parking spot.

    (Of course that would involve a major redesign of the axles & transmission, or an all-electric car with each wheel having its own motor.)

    One simple thing that cars need these days is a jack to plug into a portable sound system such as an IPod or a satellite radio receiver, or even a laptop with ITunes running. Using FM radio signals is a pain where I live because there seems to be a bazillion stations at the ends of the FM dial playing crap like Tejano or NPR, and new ones keep coming into range every dozen miles or so.

  12. The one feature I’d especially like is one or two 110VAC (220VAC in Europe, of course) outlets on the dash. It’s easy enough; you can get aftermarket inverters that plug into the cigarette lighter jack for about $40-50. Why isn’t this standard equipment?

  13. Ken:  You can get the network-following feature in Europe, but I don’t think it’s supported so well here.  The data stream which provides this function is called RDS, I believe.

  14. “A really useful feature would be the ability to turn all four wheels 90 degrees and drive sideways into a parallel parking spot.

    (Of course that would involve a major redesign of the axles & transmission, or an all-electric car with each wheel having its own motor.)”

    A pneumatic jack with a powered caster in the back of the car; I’ve seen this gadget; You pull in, place your front tires, and then it brings the back end of the car in line for you, and back out when you are ready to leave. I’m not sure they ever offered this option outside of Japan, though.

  15. Couple months ago in Mechanics Illustrated (I believe it was….dentist office read) some guys added wings, etc. to a car and flew it hundreds of yards. Wasn’t exactly stable but it flew!

    Flew it at Kittyhawk :)

  16. A friend of mine flew a Camaro from a roadside snowbank to the middle of a field. The only tracks in the snow were his footprints walking away.

  17. Then again, so could a phase-change film on the glass which turns from transparent to reflective at a certain temperature.

    Sounds to me like you’d have to sit there with the AC running for awhile before the film cooled off enough to allow you to see through your windshield.

    Flying cars are easy. Cars that can both fly and land are much more difficult.

    I dunno about that. Seems to me that the landing is the easy part. After all, we’ve had a variety of heavier-than-air craft for over a century and we’ve never left one up there yet.


  18. Does anyone know of a solar powered auto exhaust fan (that fits in the window) that has a remote solar panel? I would like one with a panel I can put in the middle of the top of the car, r/t just on the device itself.

  19. I live in an appartment complex with a huge parking lot in front of the house. Nowadays, I hear a door-lock alarm every few minutes when one of my neighbors leaves or returns to the house. At times and depending on what I am doing (e.g. sleeping, working), this is quite distracting and even startling.

    Also recently I was in a public short-term parking lot. And in the short moment I parked there and left my car to go shopping, I was bombarded with several honkings of people returning or leaving their cars, which was very startling.

    This said, I appreciate clarification here in this discussion that the lock horn is a default setting by the manufacturer that can be changed. I always knew that none of my neighbors was doing this with bad intention ;-) I just wish that awareness for the people suffering the noise of door lock car horns (esp. at busy places) will be more spread so that people change their defaults. The nice thing about it: this goes almost without any functional loss for the car owner, because light signals serve the same purpose to confirm that doors are locked.


  20. Thanks, Seb. I think it’s a mistake for manufacturers to activate the horn signal by default, because many car owners will not change the settings from their default values.

  21. Wife got a new Honda Accord. There are a few features that take some getting used to. I suppose I’ll appreciate them as I get used to them.

    I decided not to put my seat belt on last week. After a minute or so it beeped at me a couple times to remind me I hadn’t buckled up. I decided to see if it would shut up eventually. As I drove on and it continued to beep I got a little annoyed with it but drove on. To my surprise it finally quit beeping after about 10 minutes!

  22. My current car has a variation on the “always on” headlights: the headlights stay on whenever the engine is running *and* the parking brake is not engaged. It’s rather convenient.

  23. Who do we have to kill to get those horn honking locks changed? All we need is to add more noise to an already noisy and rude society. It is just a symptom of the fact that people are ignorant, rude and just plain don’t care about anyone else but themselves and their precious automobiles.

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