Not The Target Market

I’ll Take Mine with a Key (and No Screen), Please

2015-ford-flex-3When the Brits come for a visit, I rent a larger car so that we can all go places together. This last one was a Ford Flex – you know those cars that clearly want to be old Woodie station wagons, but, due to something horrible happening to the plans, they ended up as anime hearses instead. 

Apparently I am more of a car person than I thought because it never occurred to me, until I rented this thing, that I might be bothered by what a car looked like. I am still stunned that I drove something so ugly. On the other hand, as I kept telling myself, when you are inside, you aren’t looking at the ugliness. And inside, it is surprisingly comfortable. And it holds seven, even when three are in car seats.

However, this is not about the rampant ugliness of some cars. It is about the rampant technology in new cars. I am appalled at what is now the norm.

To start with, this car had a push button start. From the first time, some years ago, when I heard of this “new” way to start a car, I thought it was stupid.

“But you don’t need a key. You can just throw the fob in your pocket,” someone told me, sure I would come round to this bright, new world.

“But I don’t have a pocket,” I said. “They don’t put them in women’s clothes. And now I need to take not just a fob, which is bulky, but also my keys. More stuff, not less.”

And what happens, I wanted to know, when the fob goes on the fritz – as all technology is wont to do from time to time, just because it can – and it’s one o’clock in the morning and you can’t start the car?

Or what happens when you are the kind of person to use up the car instead of trading it in every three years? In this family we keep our cars until they beg to be retired. The battery in the fob will wear out long before the car. And It Can’t Be Replaced. Not like a watch or a hearing aid or anything else that runs on batteries. The whole fob needs to be replaced. To the tune of $300+ dollars. This is a ridiculous and unnecessary and expensive car repair and something that makes any normal person spit nails.

When I picked up the car, the rental agent had started it and driven it over to the front door of the place. All I had to do was get in and drive it away. But then, when I needed to leave for the airport to pick up the travelers, it wouldn’t start. I pushed the button and the lights came on and after a bit a message scrolled across the dash “Push brake to start.” So I did. Nothing happened and the car shut off again. I tried this sequence a few times, then I tried pushing the brake before pushing the button. Same result. Lights but no engine.

I stalked into the house, looked up the number, called the rental place and apologized for being the stupidest person in the world, but please could they tell me the secret to starting this thing.

The woman on the other end said, “You have to push the brake.”

I said, “I have.”

She said, “It should start.”

I said, “It doesn’t. I push the button and push the brake, but only the lights come on.”

She said, “No, you have to push the brake and hold it while you push the button.”

“Well,” I said, “why don’t the instructions say that?”

Because you have to admit that “Push brake to start” is NOT the same thing as saying “Push brake while pushing start button.” Not the same thing at all, and also the kind of thing that you only know if you already know it. From long experience in reading inadequate instruction manuals, I have come to the conclusion that just about every major corporation ought to hire me to put their manuals and instructions into plain, sensible, discernible English.

On the upside, after we had a successful start, and safely gathered in The Daughter and her family, and I related my adventures in getting this ugly thing to turn on, The Daughter consoled me by saying that I obviously looked so trendy and with it, that no one thought to give me more in depth instructions…

It’s not just the reliance on batteries and computers for what can be perfectly straightforward mechanical tasks that bothers me. It’s the distraction of it all. Thursday’s Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled Traffic Fatalities Surge. The subhead read: Rise of 10.4% in first half follows an uptick in 2015, raising fears over distracted driving.

The article predictably cites texting while driving. However, I don’t think that’s the only reason. The WSJ article hints in half of one sentence at what I think is a far bigger problem: “… motorists are also inundated with more technology in the car cabin …”

If texting while driving is an obvious problem and if more and more states are requiring all phone calls in the car to be hands free, why would anyone think it is a good idea to fill up the front dashboard with touch screens that require one to take one’s eyes off the road and to page down five levels on the screen to get to the controls that adjust the air temp in the back seats?

Reaching over to give a knob a spin is one thing; studying the various icons and repeatedly punching them to bring the fan speed up and then punching in a different place to bring the temperature down, all while navigating Boston rush hour traffic is something totally different.

It is as if no one dares speak against having more screens, more computers, more technology in the cars, because that is anti-progress, luddite, negative, or something. Technology is not the solution for everything. It is not appropriate everywhere. And if the screen of a smart phone is inappropriate for a driver, then so are all the other built in screens.

After two weeks of driving this anime hearse and punching balky touch screens, I was reduced to babbling about my ideal car: something stripped down with a manual transmission – just gears, no computers or screens. And a key. A real key.

And what did I hear in reply? “But, sweetheart, you are not the target market…”

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